Bush gauges his attacks on Gore's character

Saturday, October 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A month from Election Day, George W. Bush is still struggling with the question that divided his inner circle a month ago: Is going negative a positive for his presidential campaign?

The answer is yes, most advisers and key Republicans say, because Bush has no other choice when his opponent has the advantage of incumbency in times of peace and prosperity. That is why he is trying to balance the need to attack Democrat Al Gore against fears that voters will object to his tactics.

``We have to make a case against Gore without getting blood on our hands,'' said Woody Cozad, former GOP chairman in Missouri, one of the nation's most hotly contested states.

The dilemma was clear last week, when criticism of Gore's character came in stops and starts. Bush waited until late into the first presidential faceoff in Boston to challenge Gore's integrity and raise doubts about his ability to keep campaign promises on tax cuts, health care and education.

Two days later in the vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky., Republican Dick Cheney decided on the fly to ditch a hard-hitting anti-Gore line. His encounter with Democrat Joseph Lieberman drew contrasts, yet politely.

It will be an issue again this week, as the GOP ticket keeps a hand on the dial _ toning negativity up and down in search of perfect modulation.

Republicans are divided on Bush's success so far; some, like Cozad, say the Texan can trust the media to highlight Gore's habit of exaggeration and the Democratic administration's controversies.

``You only go negative when it does more good than harm. Every time you go negative or carry a negative message of any kind, it hurts you,'' Cozad said.

Other Republicans were surprised that the GOP ticket pulled some punches.

``In this growing economy, there is no defining issue other than Al Gore's inability to tell the truth. Ultimately, that's what this election is about and that's the direction the Bush camp is going to have to take,'' said GOP consultant Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's failed 1996 campaign.

Independent analysts say Bush needs to shake up the race, even if that means going negative. National polls are tight, but Gore holds a slight edge in state electoral voters.

``When you're behind it's not the time to play bean bag,'' said Bruce Oppenheimer, political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, the vice president's home state.

Gore was forced this week to buy ads in Tennessee and West Virginia after being caught flat-footed by Bush. An overconfident Gore allowed GOP ads to air unanswered in the states, and Bush closed the gap in polls.

In other tactical shifts:

_Bush is increasing his ad campaign in California next week, hoping to force Gore to siphon money from other campaign battlegrounds to defend the Democratic turf. As he did in Tennessee and West Virginia, Gore has allowed Bush to run ads unopposed on the California airwaves. Democrats say Bush is not investing enough money to make a difference. Polls show Gore ahead in the must-win state.

_The Republican Party opened its multimillion dollar get-out-the-vote effort, shipping pro-Bush material to voters in key states last week.

_ Gore's campaign is polling voters in Arizona and Colorado to see whether he can expand his electoral map further into Bush turf. GOP polls show the governor ahead.

The Bush campaign has debated the going-negative question since August, when Gore surged in polls and Bush vetoed the GOP's first character ad. Many Republicans were frustrated by his reluctance to go negative.

But Bush quickly warmed to the notion, and steadily increased his criticism. In the Boston debate, he criticized the vice president's fund-raising record and raised the specter of impeachment.

``We need to have a new look about how we conduct ourselves in office,'' Bush said. The next day, Bush and his advisers accused Gore of making exaggerated claims in the debate, and argued that a solid leader would not stoop so low under pressure.

Bush took the high road Thursday, but was back on message Friday: ``I think the man's prone to exaggeration.''

Preparing for the vice presidential debate, Cheney practiced a line that made Bush's case against Gore: ``Governor Bush makes things happen. The vice president makes things up.''

To the surprise of his own team, Cheney never uttered the jab Thursday night. Aides said he wanted to honor the debate's high-minded tone, but a number of senior Republicans said they suspected Cheney didn't want to look mean in front of a large TV audience.

Through it all, Gore condemned Bush for raising the character issue _ and then hoped for the best.

Gore's own advisers say they don't know whether voters will punish Bush for the attacks or punish the vice president for what the attacks suggest about Gore's character.