DETROIT -- Some leading national Republicans, alarmed about George W. Bush's difficulty in stemming Al Gore's advance, are issuing warnings to the Bush campaign and urging a review of tactics.
Bush campaign officials liken the rising nervousness among party leaders to fears expressed last winter after Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to Sen. John McCain of Arizona. They suggest this current angst, too, will pass.
Bush "laughed and he said, 'Well, just remember, this is when you find out who your friends are,"' spokeswoman Karen Hughes said Thursday when asked by reporters about GOP jitters.
Hughes said the campaign was nonetheless sensitive to criticism and advice from prominent Republicans in Washington. "We're listening," she said. "We know it's well-intentioned. Republicans want to win."
Since last month's Democratic convention, the vice president "has inherited the mantle of incumbency," Hughes added. "But there are some risks of incumbency. Governor Bush enjoys being the challenger."
Still, there is mounting concern in the Bush camp over polls showing that the Texas governor is losing or has lost the edge he once enjoyed in many battleground states.
The decision to campaign in Florida next week -- a state once believed to be a sure-win for Bush, whose younger brother Jeb is governor -- was viewed by GOP officials as yet another sign of the race tightening.
Bush's current taunting of Gore on presidential debates -- both in a new television ad and in stump speeches -- was also angering some Republicans, said GOP officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
While Bush's pre-emptive "agreement" last Sunday to participate in one formal debate and two on TV talk shows was initially cheered as a bold strike by Bush, his subsequent refusal to negotiate terms on other formats with Gore was viewed with increasing concern.
The debate on the debates "is irrelevant. It's not what voters care about," said GOP pollster Frank Luntz.
Still, Luntz said, "The level of interest in this campaign is shockingly low. The potential for comeback is incredibly high. You could easily see a tidal wave in the final hours."
Many national Republicans were getting increasingly worried about the recent turn in events.
"Everybody got cocky" after Bush's comfortable lead over Gore through most of the summer and a triumphant GOP convention, conceded veteran GOP operative Charles Black, a Bush campaign adviser.
Now the reality of a close race is sinking in, worrying many Republicans, Black said. But he said he thinks there's still plenty of time for Bush to regain lost ground.
Hughes said that in the coming days, "We're going to aggressively make the case that Governor Bush has real plans for real people."
She suggested that Bush has been making gains in Midwestern battleground states in recent days "in the real America where real people live," despite some disappointing poll results.
As to concerns by Washington Republicans over the conduct of the Bush campaign -- still largely managed by a small group of Texas-based Bush loyalists -- the same concerns were voiced last February as Bush was struggling under the McCain challenge, Hughes suggested.
"I think the result will be the same. Governor Bush is very pleased with the leadership and the direction of his campaign," she said.
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