Commentary: The Perils of Bush-Whacking

In 1988, a popular governor left his party's love fest of a Presidential nominating convention with a commanding lead in the polls against the sitting Vice-President, who was struggling to escape the shadow of a masterful communicator in the White House. Of course, that governor was resoundingly rejected by the voters in the end.

Al Gore likes that lesson from history a lot. And as he strolls the beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, how can he not indulge in a daydream or two about a similar finale to the 2000 campaign? No doubt, the parallels are eerie. Twelve years ago, it was the senior George Bush who pulled the come-from-behind win over Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis by eviscerating the governor's record. GOP strategists focused on a half-dozen ''facts'' about Dukakis they thought the electorate should know. They ranged from Boston Harbor's pollution problem to the rape of a woman by convicted murderer Willie Horton, out of jail on a Bay State furlough program.

Now, Gore will try to do the same to the younger Bush--and his record as Texas governor. The opportunity is there. A recent University of Pennsylvania study shows most Americans don't know the Texan's position on controversial issues such as school vouchers, soft money, and gun licensing. ''When they learn more, their [positive] opinion changes,'' says Mark Fabiani, Gore's deputy campaign manager.

LEADERSHIP DOUBTS. What would Gore like America to know about George W.? Among the highlights of the Gore hit parade: Texas' vanishing budget surplus, Bush's dubious environmental stewardship, and the state's miserable record on children's health care. ''George Bush makes Michael Dukakis look like one of the most successful governors in American history,'' jabs Democratic media consultant Jennifer Laszlo.

That's not all. The Gore campaign will warn that Bush could end the current prosperity with an orgy of tax cuts, Pentagon spending, and Social Security privatization. To reinforce that message, the Democrats have launched a 17-state ad blitz and four anti-Bush Web sites.

For Gore to win, though, he needs more than a good Bush-whacking. So far, he has done a poor job of convincing Americans that he has the strength and leadership ability to continue the economic good times of Clinton's years. ''He's now got to tangibly demonstrate to the American people that he's the top dog and can do it on his own,'' says Representative Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.).

But how? Gore plans to focus on his ''fiscally responsible'' economic program, which aims to eliminate the federal debt by 2012. The Vice-President will also use the Democratic convention to highlight his central role in the Clinton Administration's economic deliberations and portray the election as a choice between the futurist approach of Clinton-Gore and the failed Bush-Quayle approach of the past.

An integral part of the strategy is to pick a running mate with strong New Economy credentials. A top prospect, Gore insiders say, is liberal Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a high-tech whiz and decorated Vietnam War veteran whose youth and affability will stand in sharp contrast to George W.'s very last-century team, and particularly his Veep, Richard B. Cheney.

But the scorched-earth part of Gore's strategy carries considerable risk. Bush has made a good first impression on most American voters. And if Gore overplays his hand, his attacks could come off as shrill and desperate. ''We learned with Ronald Reagan [in 1980] how hard it is to attack somebody when people like that person,'' notes independent pollster John Zogby.

Regardless, Democrats think throwing the spotlight on Bush's record may be the only way to turn the election around. ''As people like me point out how poor Mr. Bush's record has been,'' says Maryland Governor Parris W. Glendening, ''and the Vice-President points out his positive policies for the future, I believe we will, in fact, win.'' Like the 1988 Bush election, such a campaign won't be pretty. But for Al Gore, who's facing a double-digit deficit in the polls, options are limited. And winning ugly is better than not winning at all. Just ask George Bush--Sr., that is.

By Richard S. Dunham
Dunham is covering Election 2000 for Business Week.

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