Gore, Bush setting sights on moderates

Tuesday, June 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

As primary season ends, they aim to readjust campaigns without alienating core supporters

With the primaries ending and their conventions ahead, Al Gore and George W. Bush move into summer on a remarkably similar track: expanding their courtship of the middle without riling their political base.

For Mr. Bush, the task means reaching out to moderates while maintaining Republican support among the party's ardent abortion foes.

For Mr. Gore, it means broadening his appeal even as he reassures organized labor, a crucial Democratic constituency upset with the administration over trade.

"It's all a balancing act," said University of Texas professor Walter Dean Burnham, an expert on presidential politics. "In a close election, you don't want your guys to go fishing on Election Day."

The presidential primary season comes to a quiet close Tuesday as a last handful of states hold delegate-selection contests. The outcome has been known since March, when the bruising early rounds left Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore as their parties' presumptive nominees.

In recent weeks, the Texas governor has found himself even or ahead of the vice president in the polls, a turnaround for a candidate who analysts say stumbled through the early debates amid questions about his competence and intellect.

Pollster John Zogby says that after tilting his campaign to the right to beat rival John McCain in conservative South Carolina, Mr. Bush has moved back onto the middle ground.

By emphasizing issues that traditionally favor Democrats - education, Social Security and nursing home care - Mr. Bush has made inroads among Democratic constituencies, including independents and women, he said.

As for Mr. Gore, he emerged from the primaries an energized man - "I'll fight for you" - after knocking off Democratic rival Bill Bradley in March.

But his campaign lost much of its sizzle as he launched a series of scathing attacks on the governor's record in Texas and broke with President Clinton on the handling of the Elián González case.

The vice president was sometimes shrill, and his critics said, too political. And Mr. Bush was quick to bolster the perception, repeatedly asserting that Mr. Gore would say anything, or do anything to get elected.

One Gore aide said flatly that the vice president "wasted" at least two weeks when he was engulfed in controversy over his decision to support legislation granting the 6-year-old Cuban boy and some of his family resident status in the United States.

Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, said many of the issues that voters care about most - the economy, Social Security and education - should favor Democrats.

"If you look at a lot of the key issues, you'd like the cards they [Democrats] are holding," said Mr. Cain. "But somehow, despite holding those cards, Gore just seems to be mired."

Key issues

Now, looking at a long summer campaign before the Democratic National Convention in mid-August, Mr. Gore is trying to make up some lost ground.

Gone at least in the short term are the harshest attacks on Mr. Bush, replaced by more emphasis on issue initiatives - the war on cancer, environmental cleanup, and better mental health and welfare reforms.

"We're beginning to focus on the key issues ... laying the foundations of those issues," said Mr. Gore's press secretary Chris Lehane.

Also, the candidate and his campaign - with a big boost from the Democratic National Committee, which is planning a multimillion-dollar television ad campaign - want to tell the Al Gore story, to fill out his biography in more personal terms.

As he did at times during his primary fight with Mr. Bradley, the vice president will talk more about himself, his family and his roots in Tennessee.

"Al Gore is famous, but he is not necessarily well-known," Mr. Lehane said, previewing this summer's campaign themes.

Over the summer, he said, the Gore campaign wants to reintroduce the candidate "on his own terms, in his own voice, with his own agenda."

According to a Bush aide, once the Democrats begin airing their Gore commercials, the Bush side will respond in kind, promising a summer of dueling spots in political battleground states leading up to the national conventions.
The Bush campaign invited reporters Monday to its Austin headquarters for a briefing with senior advisers, who touted their analysis of national polls giving the governor an edge over Mr. Gore.

The Bush blueprint envisions burnishing his credentials as a political moderate by emphasizing education and Social Security while avoiding such fractious issues as abortion, and promoting bipartisanship and sensitivity to minorities and the poor.

Last month, when Mr. Bush appeared on the lawn of the Governor's Mansion in Austin with Colin Powell, the campaign imported students from a local Lutheran school. Repeating a practice common on the campaign trial, a Bush aide positioned a black and a Hispanic student next to the podium in full camera view beside the governor.

While Mr. Bush was moving to the middle from the right, his Democratic rival was moving there from the left. In speeches over the Memorial Day weekend, the Democratic vice president highlighted his experiences as a military journalist in Vietnam.

The No. 2 spot

One key decision facing both candidates in the next two months is selection of a running mate.

Analysts say the issue is particularly dicey for Mr. Bush, whose pronouncement that he would consider a supporter of abortion rights such as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge has angered some anti-abortion advocates, who warn they could vote for likely Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan or not vote at all.

The Rev. Pat Robertson and radio host James Dobson have warned that selection of a vice presidential candidate who backs abortion rights could prompt some conservatives not to vote at all.

"With Governor Bush, people have questions about where he is going to come down," said Colleen Parro, director of the Republican National Coalition for Life, who cautioned him to "not mess up in terms of the right-to-life issue."

As for Mr. Gore, his support of the administration's advocacy of trade with China as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement has angered labor.

Joe Gunn, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, said labor isn't happy about the administration's trade policies but likely will support Gore anyway.

"We did our best fight, but we also have to look now at the options," said Mr. Gunn. "Working people will look at what George Bush has on background versus Gore on background. And Gore, backgroundwise, has been with us 90 percent of the time."

Meanwhile, Gore aides acknowledge that he continues to have trouble getting heard, largely because of the president's very high profile as he tries to polish his tarnished legacy in the waning months of his last term.

"Clinton dominates most stuff every day, and he'll get on the news before Gore will," said one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In short, the official said, Mr. Gore suffers, as have other vice presidents before him.

Analysts say the best strategy for both candidates is to keep their heads down, carefully choose their summertime shots and devote their major staff resources to choosing a running mate and planning for the conventions and fall campaign.

"George W. Bush has to lay low between now and the convention, but lay low in the way that he's done so well ... Don't stay out of the way of the press, but pick your press wisely,'' said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the Claremont Graduate University in California."

For Mr. Gore, though, this summer might prove "far more difficult" she suggested.

"Clearly, he has to energize and mobilize the traditional Democratic constituencies, including labor, Latinos and women," she said. And because "he doesn't relate well," she added, "nobody gives him the benefit of the doubt."

"It is a close race," she said. "Gore has got to pray the economy keeps perking along. And Gore has to pray that Bill Clinton doesn't do something really stupid and bring everything back."