Gore and Bush set sights on November

Confident of party bases, both covet independents

The winners

Super Tuesday

March 08, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Reveling in the glow of their landslide Super Tuesday triumphs, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush used their victory speeches last night to reach out to their all-but-vanquished foes while turning a critical eye toward the general election.

Gore bounded onto the stage in his native Nashville, Tenn., well before the polls closed in California, confident by 9: 10 p.m. that he had smashed the flagging campaign of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

"They don't call it Super Tuesday for nothing," the vice president shouted to a roaring crowd.

Two hours later, Bush hailed his "good news from sea to shining sea" to an equally ebullient audience in Austin, Texas.

"Soon, our party will unite and turn to the main task at hand, ending the era of Clinton and Gore," Bush said, to chants of "No more Gore, no more Gore."

Gore touched only briefly on Bradley's once formidable challenge, when he saluted "a good man" deeply committed to "healing the divisions in our country."

But the vice president felt little need to bow to Bradley's supporters. In the end, Bradley simply had few voters to woo back to the Gore camp.

Instead, the vice president homed in on the disaffected independents who flocked to the reform banner of Republican Sen. John McCain, reaching out to "all Americans who seek the best America, all Americans regardless of party.

"To Republicans and independents out there whose heroes are Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, to all of you I say, `Join with us,' " Gore said, in a performance buoyed by success. "Our campaign is now your cause."

Bush did the same, framing himself as a Washington outsider every bit as reform-minded as McCain, but with a compassionate message that could appeal to an even broader electorate. Any negative tinge to his speech was aimed squarely at the vice president -- and at the Clinton administration Gore served.

Vowing to "return exiled honor to the White House," Bush promised "a fresh start, a clean break, a rebirth of idealism."

"We need to put behind us eight years of nightly polls and daily attacks, eight years of partisanship, gridlock and division," Bush told a raucous crowd at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas. "America must not give Clinton-Gore a third term."

But the Texas governor softened that edge with a plea to his own party, calling the GOP he seeks to lead a "party of inclusion, a party with a generous heart and an open door."

Signaling a shift to the political center after a primary season that took him to the right, Bush implored supporters, "Republicans must expand our prosperity, and extend it to those who still struggle. We must also be a strong nation -- that cares for the weak and the forgotten."

Bush supporters are banking that McCain voters were not so much attracted to the specifics of McCain's campaign finance reform proposals as to his message that Washington must be shaken up.

"The McCain campaign was driven by character and personality, not by his issues," said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist not aligned with either GOP candidate.

It was clear last night that both Gore and Bush believe independents could hold the key to the White House in the fall. At this point, Gore appears to have the solid support of his party, while Bush solidified his hold on Republicans by sharpening his conservative message.

That leaves the independents, said Bush adviser Ralph Reed, and they are about 18 percent to 20 percent of the electorate.

Last night's winners also aimed their fire at each other, in the beginning of what is sure to be a long and potentially ugly campaign. Gore struck first, albeit obliquely, framing himself as the candidate to safeguard the nation's "mountaintop moment" of economic good fortunes. A Gore administration would pay down the national debt, shore up Social Security and Medicare and spend federal dollars on programs that will keep the economy growing, such as technology, public education and college tuition tax credits.

Gore never mentioned Bush by name, but he drew a stark contrast between himself and his likely GOP rival, calling Bush's economic proposals a "risky tax scheme" that would squander the budget surplus.

Gore stuck to issues he believes are dangerous to Bush: the governor's opposition to abortion rights, gun control and strict environmental regulation.

And he repeated a challenge made during the nomination fight with Bradley. He called for both parties' nominees to forsake unregulated "soft money" and to shelve all radio and television advertisements in favor of twice-weekly debates on issues.

Bush was far more direct in his attack, raising the specter of the Clinton administration's campaign finance scandals of 1996, hammering Gore as an understudy of Bill Clinton and labeling him the candidate of the status quo.

After running to the political right to secure core Republican support, Bush began scurrying back to the center, where he had hoped to fix his campaign all along. Conservative social issues such as abortion never arose in his victory speech. And he tapped Phyllis Hunter, an African-American educator, to introduce him.

Bush picked back up his original theme of compassionate conservatism, stressing education and the aspects of his tax plan designed to aid the working poor.

But most of all, Bush blanketed himself in the warmth of a hard-fought victory.

"We were challenged, and we met the challenge," he said. "We were tested, and we were equal to the test. We promised a national campaign. And tonight, we have a national victory."

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