WASHINGTON--Al Gore and George Bush proved at least one thing in winning their parties' nominations: They know how to take an opponent down.
Both of them began the race with the enormous advantage of solid support from elected officials and leaders of key constituency groups. But both saw insurgent challengers with strong appeal to political independents threaten to upset them. Bill Bradley surged ahead of Gore in New Hampshire polls last autumn and John McCain actually defeated Bush in that state on Feb. 1.
But when the threat appeared, Gore and Bush had the weapons to choke it off. Both demonstrated with tough speeches and tougher television ads that they were ready to dismember their rivals when the times demanded it. Looking ahead to the fall, the question is not whether they will use these tools--but how.
We do not have to guess. The Gore line of attack was previewed in the final days of his primary campaigning in California and New York. On three issues--guns, abortion and the environment--Gore is arguing that Bush is out of step with majority opinion in the country. Bush has opposed strong new controls on handguns and, in Texas, supported a law to shield gun manufacturers from liability suits. He opposes abortion except in cases involving rape, incest or the life of the mother and supports unchanged the Republican platform plank calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Several Texas cities have severe air pollution problems and Bush as governor allowed some of the polluting industries to continue their practices.
On the vital issue of the economy, Gore claims that Bush's proposed large, across-the-board tax cut--''that risky tax scheme''--would squander the budget surplus, take away funds needed for new education and health programs and to shore up Social Security and Medicare, and risk a return to the bumpy economic cycles and chronic deficits of the 1980s.
Republicans may object to Gore's characterization of Bush's record and positions, but as long as the debate remains on these grounds, the Democratic candidate has the upper hand and Bush must fight uphill.
The governor is prepared for that fight: He argues that his record on school reform in Texas is strong and that Gore's ties to the teachers' unions will hobble his ability to deliver the ''revolutionary change'' the vice president has promised in the schools. But to offset the Gore advantage on domestic issues, Bush has to try to move the debate to a different and more personal dimension.
He will have to link Gore to the scandals that have scarred the Clinton years. Gore's personal morals appear immune to criticism, but the Bush campaign has the tape of that brazen rally on the White House lawn, on the day that Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives, when the vice president, in cheerleader mode, called Clinton ''one of our greatest presidents.'' Bush will try to make Gore eat those words.
The campaign-finance scandals of 1996 offer Bush more targets. The shakedown at the Buddhist temple, the phone calls to contributors from the vice president's White House office, the criminal conviction of one of Gore's top fund-raisers, the Chinese connection, the swap of funds with the Teamsters--all these and more will be resurrected. McCain was absolutely right in saying that the scale of Bush's own fund raising--though untainted by illegality, as far as is known--and Bush's stubborn defense of unlimited ''soft money'' contributions from millionaires cloud Bush's credentials to indict Gore. But he has to try.
Finally, and most important, Bush will try to link Gore to the other thing Americans dislike most about Washington--its partisanship. Nothing--not even financial scandals and the stench of special-interest influence--dismays people more than the spectacle of constant warfare between Republicans and Democrats.
Bush has a record of working successfully with the Democratic Texas Legislature. To be sure, Texas Democrats are far more conservative than most Democrats on Capitol Hill. But Bush's personality--his natural friendliness, his lack of ego--and his modest agenda invite legislators from both parties to cooperate on his goals, while leaving them room to seek their own objectives.
Gore, on the other hand, has been part of the Washington battleground for the past seven years, and, before that, was often a lone-wolf legislator in his years on Capitol Hill. As the point man in the Clinton administration's conflicts with Congress, he is disliked and distrusted by Republicans, who are likely to continue to control at least one house of Congress. The more partisan Gore becomes in the coming campaign, as is his tendency, the more Bush can portray his election as dooming the nation to four more years of gridlock.
Fasten your seatbelts. There's stormy weather ahead.
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