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Jewish World Review March 10, 2000/ 3 Adar II, 5760


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Consumer Reports



Bush Is Lucky
It's Only March -- SO LAST WEEK we witnessed the meltdown of McCain. I give the guy credit, by using the media as a tool he took a bare-bones operation almost to the nomination. I wrote months ago that a key element in a winning presidential campaign is luck, and George Bush is lucky there are so many primaries on March 7. If the GOP battleground were only New York, Bush would've been in a heap of trouble. That's how amateurish the campaign has been here-not surprising, since the candidate allowed himself to be escorted around the state by Gov. George Pataki.

First there was the news that Sam Wyly, one of Bush's main contributors, had spent $2.5 million in "soft money" ads in New York, California and Ohio that blasted McCain's record on the environment, while boasting about Bush's pristine state of Texas. Please. There are two problems with this: One, although the Bush campaign denies any knowledge of the ad campaign, even if it's true no one will believe them, and it plays into McCain's centerpiece issue of campaign finance reform. Two, neither Republican is likely to be toasted by the Sierra Club; it's a stupid issue to waste all that money on and muddies Bush's real accomplishments in Texas.

Then there was the radio ad that accused McCain of being hostile to breast cancer research. When pressed by reporters, Bush couldn't back up the claim. Nor could he point to any legislation he's passed in Texas on the issue. Even worse, who's the idiot in the Bush campaign who couldn't discover that McCain's sister, Susan McCain Morgan, has survived breast cancer? Bush wasn't much better at the State University of New York at Stony Brook when, accompanied by Liddy Dole for female cover, he responded to the revelation about McCain's sibling by saying, "All the more reason to remind him what he said about the research that goes on here." It was a sickening moment for the campaign and Bush, who puts such a value on family loyalty, ought to be ashamed.

His slipshod effort in New York might cost him a victory here; if that's the case, he deserved to lose.

In fact, a friend of mine who also supports Bush was so disgusted by the ad he said (rather apocalyptically, I think) that the Texan has already blown the general election. "Well, I just finished reading the Times and the Post and Bush's remark about McCain's sister will finish him off. If it's on tape and I were Gore, I'd just run it all spring as an ad, with the tagline 'This is the real George Bush.'"

Of course, Gore can't do that. He's got his own, much worse cancer baggage. After his tearjerker speech at the '96 convention, speaking about his sister who died of lung cancer in 1983, the GOP gleefully excavated footage of Gore's short presidential campaign in 1988 when he bragged in Southern states about how he worked in the tobacco fields as a youth on the family farm.

But the fact remains that Bush's team didn't know the New York terrain. What was the candidate doing faking his way through a seminar on breast cancer research when he could've held a rally at Washington Square Park and spoken about education? Why did he let the unimaginative Pataki lead him by the nose when Rudy Giuliani, who was smart not to criticize McCain, would've been a much better chaperone?
After McCain's admission of his own dirty tactics in Michigan, Bush was polling fine in New York and he could've toured the state on a positive note with the Senate hopeful, bashing (in this instance) Bill and Hillary Clinton instead of McCain. The brain trust in Austin has performed admirably on many fronts, but if the campaign waged here is any indication, it's a good thing there's still time before the general election. I'd say a major, Al Gore-like shakeup is in order. David Beckwith was thrown overboard last year; some others should follow him into the drink.

Some Friendly Advice

What Bush has to do in the general election is frame the agenda. He can't always play defense: that's why McCain was so effective against him. He has to coherently explain what "compassionate conservatism" is and what it means to the average American. Gore and the Democrats will demagogue on a number of issues. They will race-bait in the South. Bush can head this off-and the sooner the better-by recasting the arguments.

Make abortion about partial-birth abortion. Make guns an issue of elitism and class warfare. Make tobacco an issue of elitism and class warfare. Put a more accurate face on the religious right. Slam the Hollywood and Hamptons liberals who are so vital to the Democratic fundraising efforts.

Once McCain consultant Mike Murphy has licked his wounds, Bush should hire him immediately. Murphy's a political whore; he'll go where the money is. The addition of a far more creative advertising team is essential, as well as new speechwriters. Peggy Noonan and Mark Helprin would be outstanding.

He also ought to challenge Gore to as many debates as possible. That goes against Beltway thinking since the Vice President has the reputation of being a black belt in that arena, but such lofty expectations work to Bush's advantage. Like Ronald Reagan, if he can crack a few jokes, make some solid policy points, he'll be perceived as a winner-the optimistic candidate. Also, if there are a number of debates, their significance will be devalued.

Not that McCain behaved much better in New York. He appeared on the dreadful Don Imus talk show Friday morning, a pit stop for journalists and politicians, even though the despicable radio personality is a well-known racist. He rightfully complained about the breast cancer ads, saying, "It really is an unfortunate part of American political campaigning when the Bush people would pay for such an outrageous statement. People will figure it out. And if they don't figure it out, we'll have run an honorable campaign." But he hasn't run an "honorable" campaign, as people have begun to figure out. He can't imply that Bush is an anti-Catholic bigot in his own ads and then say he's been honest.

And when McCain appeared on Wall Street and referred to Pataki and Republican state chairman William Powers as "Comrades," he once again minimized the seriousness of his effort. I'm not sure that McCain will ever realize that Americans want Luke Skywalker in movie theaters and not the White House.

But it was Bush who took the low road in New York. Again, he's lucky that so many other states were in play; the pro-McCain media was spread thin and couldn't come up with a unified attack as they ate donuts on the "Straight Talk Express." Also, by this time, both campaigns have indulged in so many ugly exchanges that almost all radio and television advertising is just noise, commercials to tune out.

Meet the New Boss, Worse than the Old Boss?

Meanwhile, Al Gore has cruised to the Democratic nomination, in large part because the McCain phenomenon monopolized the time of reporters who'd have been favorable to Bill Bradley. Still, Bradley peaked too early: back when Gore was in trouble, changing his wardrobe and staff with every new poll, the former Senator raised an enormous sum of money and appealed to a media that likes to believe it's above the horse race.

Once the actual campaigning began, however, Gore slapped Bradley around in debates, even when his checkered legislative career was questioned. Bradley didn't go on the offensive until it was too late. At an Iowa debate, Gore, typically speaking to the audience as if they were preschoolers, said, "I don't think President Bill Clinton needs a lecture from Bill Bradley about how to stand up and fight for African-Americans and Latinos in this country." Bradley let that one slip by, instead of ripping into the Clinton-Gore administration scandals, and telling voters that's why he decided to run for president.

It didn't work
By last week, it was painful to even watch Bradley go through the motions. I saw a tv clip of him on a ferry greeting voters at rush hour and he resembled a bag man trawling for quarters, with an oversize overcoat, sloppy appearance and bags under his eyes. Commuters looked at the guy as if he smelled from a three-day bender.

No Republican should underestimate Gore; the guy has balls the size of an elephant. In the very same week that Maria Hsia, a Democratic fundraiser, was convicted on five felony counts for collecting more than $100,000 in illegal donations for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign of '96, Gore criticized Gov. Bush for using "soft money" in his campaign. Incredibly, Gore told reporters in Rhode Island on Sunday: "If Governor Bush defeats John McCain in some of these contests on Tuesday, this will raise serious questions about whether he did so fair and square... I believe it's wrong to flood soft money in these contests."

Bush swiftly countered: "Vice President Gore must have forgotten what administration he's been a part of. This is an administration that has violated every finance law, it seems, on the books."

Never mind that the GOP will flood the airwaves with images of Gore at that Hacienda Heights Buddhist temple event in which that 100 grand was gathered. As John Huang testified at the trial, Hsia gave him an envelope containing checks totaling $100,000 and then went to the airport. Gore, showing the compassion of his political mentor, Bill Clinton, had little to say about the verdict last week, one that will likely result in at least a light jail sentence for Hsia. He told reporters: "The jury has rendered its verdict. It's a hard day for her. She has been a friend and a political supporter. But since this matter is still in the courts, I am not going to comment on it further."

Translated: "Tipper, I've got another name to delete from our Christmas card list."

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2000, Russ Smith