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Jewish World Review May 31, 2000/ 26 Iyar, 5760


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While Bush works, AlGore shimmies for soft money -- LAST WEEK was probably the most extraordinary in George W. Bush's political career.

While opponent Al Gore was huddling with advisers on how to fashion yet another persona (calling Andrea Dworkin!), breaking only for an embarrassing ultra-whiteboy shuffle at con-artist Terry McAuliffe's record-shattering fundraiser at DC's MCI Center, Bush continued to set the agenda for the presidential campaign. He strongly criticized the Clinton administration's interference in two Israeli elections; laid out a coherent defense strategy, with reassuring GOP heavyweights like Colin Powell, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and Donald Rumsfeld standing mute by his side; sparred with religious fanatic James Dobson over the upcoming vice-presidential selection, demonstrating his independence from the extreme right wing of the party; joined with President Clinton in helping to pass PNTR for China by rounding up some stray Republican House votes; and continued to successfully push his message of reform-that Democratic mantra-by selling his relatively mild plan to partially privatize Social Security.

Bush must run a superlative campaign to defeat Gore, who's still the favorite, given the economy, complacent electorate and peacetime conditions. But so far, the GOP can't complain. His flimsy but necessary rapprochement with McCain came earlier than expected (Gore and Bradley have yet to kiss and make up); it's obvious that Bush will ask Powell to be his secretary of state; he's rebuffed extremists in his own party, making the wildly inflated Bob Jones snafu seem like it happened a generation ago; and he's even proposed a few summer debates. Bush strategists are mixed on this gambit, but I think it makes sense: the more debates that take place, the less significant they become.

Also, Gore's exaggerated reputation as the reincarnation of both Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas sets an unrealistic bar in the minds of the media. Unless he creams Bush with calm, devastating rhetoric, it's unlikely he'll emerge as a clear winner. (The media also conveniently forgets, in its self-imposed biases, that Dan Quayle clocked Gore in the '92 vice-presidential debate.)

It's imperative that Bush control the campaign's gestalt through the GOP convention in late July. Gore will likely receive a strong bounce in the polls after his own coronation a few weeks later in Los Angeles, and then he'll wage a massive advertising attack on Bush's record in Texas. The Vice President and his surrogates will harp on abortion, the death penalty (Tucker Carlson's Talk article, in which Bush allegedly made fun of killer Karla Faye Tucker, will be revived; ironically, that piece might survive the magazine itself), the pollution in Houston, health care and, if relevant at the time, the batting slump of the Astros' Jeff Bagwell. You get the picture.

Concurrent with Gore's slash-and-burn campaign, Bush would be wise to launch a $20-million advertising blitz of his own. Half should go negative on Gore, emphasizing his lies, lack of integrity, exploitation of his family for political gain and closeness to the most immoral president of the 20th century. The other half should treat Bush's own accomplishments in Texas. Gore will present Bush's state as the equivalent of a Third World nation, a hard sell since Arkansas and Tennessee aren't exactly beacons of racial tolerance, education and environmental reform and the elimination of poverty.

The June 5 issue of Time features a tantalizing but mostly bogus story about the Bush campaign by Michael Duffy. He reports that the top person on George W. Bush's list for potential runningmates is former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, who's currently the Justice Dept.'s special counsel on the Waco investigation. Danforth is a fine, serious man and a perfect fit for many Republicans: he's pro-life, led the nomination battle for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and at 63 won't pose a threat to Bush's brother Jeb, should the Florida Governor want a shot at the White House in the future.

But Duffy's been duped by the Bush camp. There's no way the Texas Governor will tap Danforth, despite his strengths (not the least his ability to pick up Missouri's 11 electoral votes), unless he unexpectedly falls in the polls between now and the GOP convention. Danforth is an Episcopal minister, which is almost enough to rule him out, given Bush's earlier difficulty with religious politics this year.

Just like Robert Novak's May 28 report that retiring Florida Sen. Connie Mack, a pro-life Catholic, "is emerging as a serious possibility" for veep (after all, if Bush has to pick someone from Florida, you're looking at a Gore landslide), Duffy's Time piece is simply camouflage for Bush's leading contender: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

While Al Gore is mired in all sorts of muck-campaign chief Tony Coelho's legal difficulties, Bill Clinton's interference, his wife Tipper's chronic depression, indecisive wardrobe decisions-and doesn't have time to concentrate on selecting, and properly vetting, a runningmate, Bush's aides are doing just that. So it's no surprise to see the fakes and trial balloons out in the media. New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman? An exceptional governor and person, says Bush. Rep. John Kasich? A driven and motivated budget-cutter, says Bush, and hey, we'd sure like to win Ohio. And so on, with Danforth, Mack, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and even the no-shot Gov. George Pataki.

It's no accident that Ridge has been the subject of so many articles in the press recently. The National Review, in its June 5 issue, blasted Ridge as a liberal Republican, whose difficulties for the party go way beyond the mere problem of his pro-choice stand on abortion. John J. Miller, demonstrating once again that conservatives often act like pre-Clinton Democrats and would rather be ideologically pure than win, reaches back to Ridge's House tenure, damning him by saying that in 1987 and 1988 he "aligned himself with the Reagan White House only 40 percent of the time." Shiver me timbers, why not just gas Ridge now and get it over with! This is a stupid argument put forth by NR, and I believe it's rather halfhearted. Remember, Ronald Reagan picked Bush's father in 1980, despite the "voodoo economics" flap and his soft stance on abortion.

In fact, Miller closes his article on a conciliatory note: "In April, Ridge caused a minor stir when he said that he thought the GOP should change its pro-life position. He hasn't retreated from that belief, but now he's careful to moderate it. 'I expressed a personal opinion. I've never been part of any effort to do that and won't be this year,' he says. 'We should be fighting Al Gore, not each other.' No matter what the issue-abortion, missile defense, the capital-gains tax-that's pretty good advice."

I'm sure the Bush campaign is telling Ridge to raise his profile, mostly to get conservatives used to the idea that he'll be the veep candidate. In a May 28 New York Times article, Francis X. Clines writes: "Of all the things he is being called lately by his critics, 'liberal' and 'dove' make Gov. Tom Ridge laugh out loud. 'I'll bet the only combat ever seen by the guy who wrote that has been in front of a Nintendo machine,' said Mr. Ridge, his credentials as a Bronze Star combat veteran of Vietnam unsullied by the slings and arrows now pelting him from within his own Republican Party."

And that's where it stands. Ridge's muted pro-choice position will reassure independent voters who might be spooked by a 100-percent anti-abortion ticket; his record in Pennsylvania (which would win Bush 23 electoral votes) is conservative; he's from a working-class family and earned a scholarship to Harvard; and, most importantly, Bush gets along with him. The religious right will swallow Ridge's nomination, even if James Dobson and Pat Robertson don't. Ralph Reed hasn't peeped about Ridge; Gary Bauer, aka Mr. Life Begins At Conception, hasn't either, and besides, he endorsed John McCain (who's squishy on abortion) in the primaries after withdrawing himself.

Ridge, whose career and personal life have been thoroughly examined by Bush's Austin team, is currently undergoing his final interview. If nothing scandalous turns up in the media, he's Bush's pick.

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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