Bush path to convention carefully choreographed

Aides tightly control access to candidate, riding high in polls

Election 2000 Republican Convention

July 30, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OWENSBORO, Ky. - The crowd had been waiting for up to two hours under a steady, miserable rain when George W. Bush bounded onto the makeshift stage in the Million Air airport hangar yesterday to deliver a speech that has become well-polished with repetition.

"Family is what keeps America strong," the Texas governor told a loudly cheering audience. "Love your children all the time. Tell 'em you love them dearly.

"President George W. Bush will keep the promise to the elderly of America. ... We must rebuild the military strength of the United States of America. ... I do not want to be the federal superintendent of schools. ... I want you to tell your friends and neighbors there's a better day ahead for America."

Twenty minutes, a hearty ovation, a hail of confetti, a blast of John Mellencamp's "Rocking in the USA," and it was over. Next stop, Louisville, than the suburbs of Cincinnati.

Bush's tortuous path to the Republican National Convention, on Day 3, has been a carefully choreographed affair: short stump speeches to the Republican faithful, limited exposure to reporters, picturesque photo opportunities, such as yesterday's rally in front of the Louisville Slugger Museum and its eight-story-tall bat.

Gone are the town-hall meetings, the round tables with citizens and the daily news "availabilities," where spontaneity could emerge. Instead, Bush aides appear determined to keep tight control over the images that precede his arrival Wednesday in Philadelphia, lest they risk any threat to a candidate who is riding high in the polls.

If news is to be made, it will be made by Bush's chosen running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who launched yesterday the most direct salvo against President Clinton of the campaign, calling him "an enormous embarrassment."

"I am generally one of those people who think Bill Clinton has been an enormous embarrassment to the country," Cheney said in an interview to be aired today on "Fox News Sunday." "He is a tragic figure in a way. Obviously very bright, he's got a very impressive set of basic interpersonal skills of a standard politician in good stead but obviously has fundamental flaws."

For weeks, Bush and Cheney have vowed to put aside the partisan attacks that have dominated Washington during the Clinton era, though they said they would "counterpunch." The Cheney interview appeared more like a frontal assault.

"It reflects how shallow the Bush-Cheney campaign is," said Chris Lehane, a spokesman for the Gore campaign. "They have been saying for weeks they would put the `politics of personal destruction' behind them, but right out of the box, they resort to old-style Republican politics."

Gore aides say they have been exasperated by Bush's avoidance of policy debates on the campaign trail of late. Seeking a little attention yesterday, Lehane said the vice president had narrowed his list of potential running mates to a "diverse" list of "fewer than 10" and that Gore would announce his choice in Tennessee on Aug. 8, six days before the Democratic National Convention.

But Lehane could not resist expressing frustration at the Bush campaign's success in capturing the attention of the news media during the runup to the announcement that Cheney would join the Republican ticket. He said the Gore selection process "will not be a substitute for a genuine campaign message."

But if the Bush campaign is playing it safe, the tone it is setting - of moral rectitude and optimism - appears to be delighting voters, who are turning out by the thousands to pave the governor's way to the convention. Bush may not be fleshing out his policy pronouncements, but he is touching a chord.

"If we don't elect this man, God's going to destroy this world, because he's not going to stand for this moral mess anymore," declared Sudie Denton, an elderly Kentuckian who waited much of the morning yesterday for Bush's speech.

"It's just time for a change," said Julie Miller of Owensboro.

To Gore aides desperate to land a punch, Bush's campaign style has become infuriating, a "Rose Garden strategy" that has deprived them of the jousting over policy and experience that they believe Gore needs to highlight his qualifications. It is all the more galling because, in their mind, the vice president is the incumbent, inheriting a prosperous and peaceful nation. It should fall on Bush, they argue, to prove to voters why a change of course is needed.

After months of essentially hiding from the press, Gore has begun to make himself more available. The vice president has always favored long, open town-hall meetings with voters, in part because campaign aides believe he is far more effective at such forums than he is at speeches. And when Gore gives a speech, it is invariably long.

Bush, by contrast, appears to be sitting on a lead in the polls, at least until the convention ends. Even Bush has expressed surprise at the crowds greeting him on his "Renewing America's Purpose" tour, groups that have been big and boisterous.

"The crowds we had yesterday were like crowds you expect the last week of the campaign," Bush said. "I was really pleased by the energy level and by the size of the crowds."

Janet Goodwin crossed the Ohio River from her home in Charlestown, Ind., yesterday to wait more than 2 1/2 hours in rainy Louisville for Bush's speech. She carried a placard reading, "Pray to End Abortion."

Bush did not mention abortion during the rally. He has not mentioned the divisive issue once during his preconvention tour. But Goodwin said she was not disappointed in the least.

"I know where he stands," she said confidently. "He's going to make a wonderful president."

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