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Jewish World Review Aug. 12, 1999 /30 Av 5759

Morton Kondracke

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There's time to catch Bush, say Gore aides -- IF THEY HAVEN'T DONE SO ALREADY, Vice President Al Gore and his aides could find solace in looking at tapes of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's lone 1998 gubernatorial debate with his Democratic opponent, Garry Mauro.

By all objective accounts, Bush was terrible. "Abysmal" is the word that Texas Monthly columnist Paul Burka used. "He looked uncomfortable and he used obscure terms known only to government insiders."

A colleague of Burka said Bush "got his ass kicked. He was amateurish. Mauro had specifics. Bush had none. Anyone who saw the debate would agree that Bush lost."

Of course, few people saw the debate. It was held on a Friday night, Texas high-school football night. And Bush went on to win the election with 68 percent of the vote.

But more than 100 million people will be watching next fall's presidential debates, and some Gore aides already are saying this is one place where their man will catch up and pass Bush and go on to win the presidency.

"Gore beat Jack Kemp in 1996," one top adviser said. "He beat Dan Quayle in 1992. And he beat Ross Perot in the debate on NAFTA in 1994. He's experienced at this and Bush isn't."

Another key moment with a huge audience will be Gore's acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention. "He's delivered two of these effectively," said his adviser.

As the election campaign intensifies next fall, Gore advisers say, "People are going to ask themselves, `Do I want a guy in the White House who's learning on the job, a raw rookie, or somebody who's probably better prepared than anyone who's come before?'"

This scenario may unfold, but the adviser's mentioning it is nearly an admission that Gore is likely to trail Bush in the polls for another year yet before the race closes.

Right now, Bush leads Gore by 15 to 20 points in most national polls. That is about the edge that 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had over Bush's father after the two national conventions -- a gap the then-vice president closed by unremitting attacks on Dukakis' liberalism.

Gore already is launching attacks on Bush -- on the environment and on Hispanic poverty in Texas -- but Gore is carrying the load almost by himself and needs help.

Gore advisers are hoping that the media weigh in pretty soon -- by getting off negative stories about the mechanics of the Gore campaign and turning its guns on Bush.

"Our mechanics are fine now," said one adviser. "We have our team in place. We will have plenty of money to get our message out." Gore's message-meister, Carter Eskew, is expected to give Gore's issues agenda needed focus, and this fall, wordsmith Bob Shrum is coming aboard to give it oratorical fire.

One of Gore's key congressional boosters indicated that he wouldn't mind if the media launched a "feeding frenzy" to demand answers from Bush -- which he is resolutely refusing -- on whether he ever used cocaine.

Scandal aside, Gore aides hope that the media will also start pressing Bush on his stance on issues. If the Gore camp could write the questions, they would go something like, "Do you agree with your Texas Republican colleagues, Reps. Tom DeLay and Richard Armey, on gun control, extending family leave, patients' rights and the $800 billion tax cut?"

Gore aides also hope that the media will begin noticing that Gore has already laid out an extensive substantive agenda and will start demanding that Bush come up with one, too.

On another front, some time this fall Gore hopes to roll out a list of more than 100 congressional endorsements and to enlist Democratic members as surrogate speakers and attack agents against Bush.

So far, only 56 House members and eight senators have publicly endorsed Gore -- versus more than 100 House members and 19 senators for Bush.

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said that unannounced endorsements would bring the number to "well over 100," and a Gephardt aide estimated that by the end of the year, the number will reach 170.

Last week, Gore campaign manager Tony Coelho and aides Marla Romash, Craig Smith and Donna Brazile briefed several dozen Democratic members on Gore's political situation.

Also last week, Gore whips in the House made the rounds of fellow members, nailing down undeclared endorsements. Some consideration was given to holding an endorsement rally before the August recess, but the idea was dropped because Gore supporters thought it would get lost amid warfare over the GOP tax bill.

If and when Democrats start speaking up for Gore, indications are that they will try to tie Bush to the congressional GOP leadership, which Gore aides are convinced is "out of touch" with the country.

One name the Gore camp rarely mentions is former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., his rival for the Democratic nomination.

Asked about it, a Gore adviser said, "Bradley's got to win in Iowa or New Hampshire. We're 30 points ahead in both places. If we win, it's over." Gore is focused on Bush and next fall, but that may be premature.

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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