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Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 1999 /1 Teves, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Gore won GOP 'debate' in N.H. -- SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (ARIZ.) was the tactical winner of last week's Republican forum in New Hampshire. But the strategic winner -- unless Texas Gov. George W. Bush sharpens up his act -- will be Vice President Al Gore.

McCain won the night by responding with wit to questions about his temper, by showing mastery of foreign policy and by appealing to independent voters, who could help him beat Bush in the Feb. 1 primary.

Bush, though, is the national front-runner and figures he'll win the GOP nomination by avoiding mistakes. That he did Thursday night, but he gained no practice for the wars to come against, presumably, Gore.

Bush is unready for the kind of savaging Gore is administering to former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). What's in store for Bush will be much worse.

The model, as several commentators have foreseen, is the 1988 pounding that Bush's father's campaign inflicted on Democrat Michael Dukakis, dragging him from a 17-point lead to a 8-point defeat.

Gore, remember, was the first person to use Willie Horton against Dukakis in the 1988 primaries. Bush's father's campaign later used that, the pollution in Boston Harbor and Dukakis' weak position on defense to destroy him. Dukakis' own ineptitude helped, of course.

This year, Gore is aiming straight for Bradley's jugular and using any weapon close at hand, especially Bradley's expansive health plan. Gore is scaring voters into thinking Bradley means to "abolish" Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and drive the country back into Reagan-era deficits.

Gore, the Buddhist temple fund raiser, also is making something shameful of Senate support for his state's pharmaceutical industry and of the industry's campaign donations to him.

Gore's latest attacks play off Bradley's accurate statement that reducing benefits and extending the retirement age are among the options a reasonable person would have to consider to keep Social Security solvent.

Gore accused Bradley the other day of planning "radical changes" in Social Security and saying that benefit cuts are "reasonable."

Bradley is being forced onto the defensive and is being reduced to charging that Gore is distorting his record. When Bradley asserts that Gore has given up on the idea of comprehensive health reform, Gore accuses him of "using desperate attacks to hide his record."

Gore said in an interview the other day that he'd prefer to have no opposition for the Democratic nomination, but that Bradley is a "blessing in disguise," giving him early practice with "tough competition."

That's what Bush needs, but he isn't getting it. The format the Bush campaign insisted on for last Thursday -- set-piece questions from moderators and no interaction among candidates -- was nice and safe, but it doesn't harden him for debates with Gore.

Moderator Brit Hume said afterward that he and co-moderator Karen Brown thought they had to pose top-of-the-news questions about Bush's intellectual depth and McCain's temper.

Clearly, both candidates were ready, but McCain responded with ease and humor -- and converted the issue to his advantage in wooing independents away from supporting Bradley in the Democratic primary and voting for him in the GOP contest.

McCain projected the image of a feisty outsider far better than did the stolid Steve Forbes, who kept hammering "Washington insiders" -- and their alleged ties to Bush -- as obsessively as McCain talked up campaign finance reform in a previous New Hampshire forum.

By contrast, Bush responded to questions about his preparation for office with chunks of his stock speech recounting his record of "leadership" in Texas, which he incessantly reminds people would be the world's 11th largest economy if it were a separate nation.

To his credit, Bush did remind viewers that he's run a successful "foreign policy" in Texas by maintaining good relations with Mexico. And he deftly fielded a specific question about "Tier 2" air quality standards posed to test his grasp of detail.

But the format allowed Bush to avoid direct combat with Forbes and Gary Bauer, who were anxious to call him out on Social Security, taxes and abortion.

It won't be that easy in the general election, when Gore will make it seem that Bush's advocacy of partial Social Security privatization, his $483 billion tax cut and his Medicare reforms all will practically destroy American civilization as we know it.

Bush thinks he can handle Gore's attacks the way Ronald Reagan did Jimmy Carter's in 1980 -- with a smile, a shrug and a "there he goes again." That's essentially how Bush handled assaults from former Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D) in 1994, and it worked.

But Gore is tougher, and a better debater, than Carter was. And he'll stop at nothing to win.

Bush faces an NFL-style pounding next fall. He is not hardening himself by playing pat-ball in New Hampshire.

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


12/07/99: Election pits Bush cuts vs. Medicare boost
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11/19/99: White House race may be best in decades
11/16/99: Where is Bush on health care fight?
11/11/99: Will TV stop profiteering from politics?
11/09/99: Is GOP isolationist, or just partisan?
11/04/99: Gore, Bradley Run Opposite Races On Style, Substance
11/01/99: GOP, Clinton could reach deal swiftly
10/27/99: Bush to fight 'culture wars' -- positively
10/21/99: Porter, Mack: heroes on medical research
10/19/99: Gore scores among party big shots, but polls go South
10/14/99: Bush critiques could help GOP Congress
10/12/99: Congress can save health care from ruin
10/07/99: Will gun-control cause the GOP to shoot itself in the foot?
10/05/99: Gore moves: Desperate but necessary
10/01/99: Fox, Armstrong make case for NIH
09/28/99: Dems' race brightens Bush's chances
09/23/99: East Timor deflates `Clinton Doctrine'
09/21/99: Buchanan v. Bush? Yeah right
09/17/99: Candidates turn attention to poverty
09/15/99: Bush's education problem
09/09/99: Budget makes 2000 an `issues' election
09/07/99:Airport rage increases, with good reason
09/02/99: U.S. future up for grabs in 2000
08/31/99: U.S. Capitol needs visitor's center -- soon
08/24/99: Will 2000 be the year of the foreign crisis?
08/19/99: Neither party has upper hand for '99
08/17/99: Ford gets freedom medal one month early
08/12/99: There's time to catch Bush, say Gore aides
08/10/99: Rudy, Hillary try much-needed makeovers
08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
08/02/99: Pols blow fiscal smoke on budget surplus
08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

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