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Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2000 /4 Adar I, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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How hard should Bush hit McCain? -- TEXAS GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R) has to reshape his campaign, but what's the best way to do it -- tell his own story more vividly or risk Republican unity by bad mouthing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.?

Both, says Bush adviser Ralph Reed -- with emphasis on "going on offense and being aggressive" with McCain on issues ranging from campaign finance "hypocrisy" to "carrying water for the left-wing media and the union bosses."

After getting shellacked by McCain in New Hampshire last week, Bush sounded more ideologically conservative and took more punches at the Clinton-Gore administration as he tried to erect a "fire wall" in South Carolina.

Bush said he would not hesitate to counter alleged McCain "distortions" about his record -- such as the charge that the governor's tax-cut plan would fail to protect Social Security or pay down the national debt. Bush also allowed surrogates to slam McCain on everything from being "the real Washington insider" to failing to adequately help fellow military veterans.

In other words, so far Bush has been behaving like former Sen. Bill Bradley, N.J., in the Democratic race -- counter-punching, but not attacking.

Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, is advising -- though he wouldn't put it in these terms -- that Bush go after McCain more the way Vice President Al Gore has gone after Bradley: with few holds barred.

Whether Bush will do it, and to what extent, was to be decided this past weekend at a top-level strategy conference in Austin, Texas.

Up to now, Bush has been easy on his "friend" because he wants to hold the GOP together for the fight to come against the Democrats.

Reed says this has got to stop. Among the attack lines he recommended are that McCain is "the Democrats' favorite Republican" and that "while posing as the caped crusader for campaign reform" the senator has "collected 40 percent of his campaign funds from the corporations his Commerce Committee regulates and flies around on their jets."

Reed says Bush should emphasize that he has actually solved problems in Texas -- cut taxes and crime, increased adoptions, reformed tort law -- while McCain "has been part of the problem."

"What are his achievements?" Reed said of McCain. "A $500 billion tobacco tax that failed to pass and a campaign finance reform plan supported by Democrats and the liberal media that never became law."

Reed says that in focus groups Republican voters see Bush being gentle with McCain and fear he'd treat Gore similarly if he were the nominee.

"McCain's going to have to be our guinea pig, our surrogate for Al Gore," he said. "Not because we're anti-McCain, but to show primary voters that we can fight."

Already, Bush has been tougher on Gore and President Clinton, jabbing at the administration for "treating the U.S. military like a rental car."

Bush said Clinton "promised us the most ethical administration in American history, but he's fallen short by 41." And, he said, "For this administration, a strong defense is something they expect from their lawyers."

According to Reed, Bush needed to start attacking Clinton and Gore more because McCain was gaining favor with that strategy, promising to "beat Gore like a drum."

Reed also thinks Bush has to drop the trappings and attitude of the front-runner, mix it up more with voters and "run like we're behind."

Beyond all this, Bush somehow needs to lose the tag that he's the "Republican establishment candidate." To a large extent, he is, of course. He has the in-crowd's endorsements and money, while McCain scares it silly.

But Bush certainly offers a different kind of Republicanism from that of the GOP congressional establishment.

"Compassionate conservatism" is a far cry from "Contract with America" Republicanism -- as different as Clinton's "New Democrat" centrism was from old-fashioned liberalism.

Somehow, Bush has got to find a way to make that difference clear to voters. Right now, McCain seems to be the only "reformer" in the race -- and a populist, to boot -- by declaring he will "take the government away from the special interests and give it back to you."

Bush campaign manager Karl Rove says his candidate's aim is to "steal the `reform' label back from McCain."

Bush also has to sell voters -- if he can -- on the merits of his $483 billion tax-cut plan and explain why it is better than McCain's $250 billion alternative, which promises to pay down the national debt faster.

Right now, according to one Democratic pollster, voters even in conservative South Carolina prefer McCain's plan by a 3-to-1 margin.

Reconfiguring his campaign won't be easy, but unless Bush does it, he may end up as the GOP's vice presidential candidate, instead of its standard-bearer.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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