Campaign of ideas gives Bush the edge

GOP candidate offers policy proposals, moves ahead in polls

May 28, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Texas Gov. George W. Bush doesn't claim to be enamored of policy.

"If you expect the president to memorize every single detail," the Republican nominee-to-be said, then "you don't understand what it means to manage a complex organization."

Yet Bush appears to have seized the initiative in the presidential contest, not with money, as he did in the primaries, but with a carefully targeted campaign of ideas.

During the past two months, he has offered policy proposals on everything from education, health care and Social Security to nuclear arms control.

In doing so, he has taken steps to repair the damage from a bruising primary season and moved back toward the center. At the same time, he is subtly addressing questions about whether he is up to the job of president.

This well-executed plan has helped Bush gain the upper hand in the presidential race at a time when Vice President Al Gore seems to be drifting, say politicians in both parties. Coincidentally or not, Bush has also pulled ahead of Gore in the polls by as much as eight points.

"Ideas are driving this campaign," said Bush, who was clearly pleased by the largely positive reaction to his call last week for a new, post-Cold War approach to arms control.

"I think that the American people are beginning to trust my judgment and my instincts. They're learning that I'm running for a reason," Bush said in an interview last week on the campaign trail in Michigan.

"I'm optimistic I can win, so long as I'm able to keep the ideas out front and convince people that I'm an optimistic, positive person that has got the judgment necessary to be their president."

Bush added that "one of the reasons I'm doing well is because when people hear me, I'm talking about my views of the future. And when people hear [Gore], he's talking about me - in a fairly harsh light, I might add, in a belittling fashion. And I don't believe you can lead or explain a vision or lead to that vision by belittling somebody else."

With more than five months to go until Election Day, relatively few voters are paying close attention to what the candidates are saying. Bush acknowledged that the contest is "far from over."

Independent opinion analyst Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center finds Bush's advantage "not so compelling," despite gains by the Texan since the primary race ended in March.

At this stage of the campaign four years ago, Kohut noted, there was a much greater consensus in the national opinion polls, which showed President Clinton with a solid lead over Bob Dole. Some recent surveys have shown Bush with a lead of 1 or 2 percentage points, a statistical tie.

Better than expected

A Gallup Poll completed last weekend found that almost three out of five voters have not made up their minds about which candidate they'll support in November. Bush led by 7 percentage points in that survey, which also showed that Bush had done a better job than Gore of solidifying his base within his party.

Bush's success has surprised some Republicans, who expected a tighter contest at this stage.

"It's probably gone a little better than I would have expected," said Gov. John Engler of Michigan at a Bush campaign stop in Detroit. "Bush is talking about things that people are concerned about."

Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican, suggested that Gore might be suffering from some of the problems Bush's father encountered as a vice president trying to succeed his boss in 1988. At one point that summer, the senior Bush trailed Democrat Michael S. Dukakis by 18 percentage points.

"Now is not a time to be overconfident," said Blackwell.

After tacking hard right to lock up the nomination, Bush has moved back into the mainstream. In the process, he has picked up support from important swing voter groups, including Catholics and independents.

His string of highly publicized speeches has included a call for partial privatization of Social Security, a bold test of the theory that Republicans court political disaster whenever they touch that program.

"I frankly loved it when people said, `Oh, he's taking a big risk. ... Doesn't he know what he's doing?'" said Bush. "Of course, I know what I'm doing. I'm showing people I know how to lead, and I want to get something done, and I understand how to get it done."

On the issue of Social Security, "the dynamics have shifted," Bush said. "There is a lot of baby boomers and younger folks who absolutely know for certain that, one, the rate of return in the private sector is a heck of a lot better than that which has been gained in the Social Security system. And, two, if nothing's done, it either has to be draconian steps to raise taxes or slash benefits, or the system won't work."

As for Gore's efforts to persuade voters, especially the elderly, that Bush's plan would jeopardize their benefits, Bush said he is convinced that he can explain to those receiving Social Security benefits that they won't be affected.

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