Gore may be too aggressive

July 24, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

AUSTIN, Texas -- Remember the "Massachusetts Miracle" of 1988, when then-Vice President George Bush visited Boston Harbor, pronounced it polluted and turned then-Gov. Michael Dukakis' boasts about his state's economic turnaround into campaign fodder?

Vice President Al Gore's strategists clearly remember it, as demonstrated in his citing of alleged Texas budget shortfalls to challenge Gov. George W. Bush's claims that his stewardship of the Lone Star State qualifies him for the White House.

But the younger Bush is no Mike Dukakis, who in effect turned the other cheek to the 1988 attacks. Within hours of Mr. Gore's attacks, the Texas governor went before television cameras and declared that the Texas budget actually has a $1.4 billion surplus, more than enough to cover unexpected budget overruns for Medicaid and the prison system, which caused the temporary shortfalls.

Mr. Gore earlier had questioned Mr. Bush's stewardship, but a report in the Austin American-Statesman the other day gave him a new opening. Noting $610 million in unexpected budget overruns, it said Texas under George W. ranked next to last among the nine states with the largest annual budgets in setting money aside in a "rainy day" fund to cope with any future fiscal crisis.

With this ammunition in hand, Mr. Gore juggled his schedule and flew to San Antonio with rhetoric blazing against what he said was the junior Mr. Bush's mismanagement. The Republican state comptroller, Carole Rylander, promptly released the latest details of the state surplus to pay for the overruns, denying the obvious -- that her timing was designed to help Mr. Bush against the Gore onslaught.

At the Bush national campaign headquarters here, strategists express confidence that, unlike Mr. Dukakis in 1988, their candidate will weather the attack on his home-state record by hitting back. Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief strategist, calls the Gore move "a Hail Mary pass" that reflects the Democratic candidate's frustration and desperation at his inability to get traction in his own campaign.

Karen Hughes, Mr. Bush's communications director and a member of his political inner circle, says that unlike Mr. Dukakis in 1988, and Democratic candidate Bill Bradley earlier this year when attacked by Mr. Gore, "we will respond quickly and forcefully, and the facts are on our side, which always helps."

Rather than worry about Mr. Gore going after Mr. Bush's record in Texas, which includes a balanced budget for four straight years, she says "if he is going to fight this campaign on the governor's home turf, we see that as a great opportunity" because of his strong re-election victory in 1998.

In jumping on the unexpected costs in Medicaid and the prison system, Ms. Hughes says, Mr. Gore should say "which senior citizens we should have thrown out of which nursing homes and which prisoners we should have let out of prison."

For the vice president "to come to our state and try to distort our balanced budget for his own political purposes is going to be very unpopular, not only in Texas but across the country." Also, she adds, it will "remind the American people of what Bill Bradley said [about Mr. Gore], which is, if he's not willing to tell the truth as a candidate, how can we know that he'll tell the truth as president?"

Although two prominent polls indicated the other day that the vice president had moved to within two percentage points of Mr. Bush, the governor's chief aides here suggest Mr. Gore's attacks on the Texas record mean he doesn't believe he has succeeded in narrowing the gap.

They argue that such attacks only underscore voter questions about Mr. Gore's trustworthiness and character. Joe Allbaugh, Mr. Bush's campaign manager and longtime political lieutenant, says of the negative tone of the Gore campaign: "Campaigns are an extension of the candidate. He's trying to define Governor Bush as something everybody in Texas knows he's not. We're not going to allow anyone else to define who Governor Bush is."

At various times this year, there have been concerns among Democratic strategists that Mr. Gore was coming across as too harsh. His recent emphasis on populist themes, painting himself and his party as the true exponents of passion, was seen as an effort to soften his image. But the latest attacks on Mr. Bush's record in Texas, the Bush strategists say, will only reinforce the earlier Gore hardness that turns off voters.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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