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In near-salivating anticipation, this morning’s Washington Post
raises the question, “Is the Republican presidential race about to turn
ugly?”

Yes, say Bush advisers after hearing that Steve Forbes has begun
testing possible lines of attack against Bush in a poll of Iowa voters.
They charge that Forbes is preparing negative and erroneous ads against
Bush.

The Forbes camp shot back that Bush was making the charge to create a
diversion from the substantive issues of the campaign. They will not,
they say, be deterred from factually challenging Bush on the record.

Forbes’ respectable second-place showing in the Iowa straw poll has
unquestionably whetted his appetite for narrowing the GOP contest to a
two-man race. So where does he go from here?

It’s still too early to conclude that other candidates, such as Dole
and Bauer, will not be players for a while, but the Bush and Forbes
money give them an ever-increasing advantage as the months roll on.

Regardless of whether the Forbes votes are indicative of grass-roots
support, he can make himself a perpetual thorn in W’s side. The
decisions he now makes as to how to proceed may set the tone for the
rest of the campaign.

Bush has been criticized by GOP conservatives for failing to
articulate specific policy proposals. His alleged failure to do so fuels
their suspicions that he doesn’t want us to know where he stands until
he’s secured a surer lock on the nomination.

Apart from whether this criticism is fair, sooner or later Bush will
have to be more specific on the issues and other questions.

Forbes may have a great deal to say about whether it will be sooner
or later.

Among the GOP front-runners, no one has more clearly articulated the
conservative message than Forbes has. Forbes spokesman Greg Mueller
said, “We are clear and away the issues candidate. We’ve got the best
candidate who’s got the deepest and broadest reach.”

Indeed, the campaign appears to be shaping up into a cat and mouse
game between Bush and Forbes with Bush wanting to avoid specifics as
long as possible, hoping to conserve his formidable war-chest. Forbes,
on the other hand, believes that by flushing out Bush he will either
damage him enough with the conservative base to make this a real contest
or nudge Bush farther to the right.

Even if Forbes is not ultimately deemed electable enough to mount a
credible challenge to Bush, his hammering home of the message can only
be good for the cause.

But based on the 1996 campaign, Bush aides fear that Forbes may go
farther than that.

“We had certainly hoped we could take Steve Forbes at his word that
he would not engage in the trash ball politics of ugly attack ads that
he did in 1996,” said Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. “He said he won’t,
but this is the same procedure he went through in 1996 before he
launched a series of attack ads on Bob Dole.”

Forbes denies negative campaigning and insists that highlighting
Bush’s record and positions on the issues is what campaigns are all
about. And he’s correct, so long as he fairly characterizes Bush’s
record and positions.

It’s true that part of Bush’s popularity is attributable to his
presumed electability by the Republican masses and others who want to
remove the Clinton stench from American politics. Such starvation for
victory has afforded him the short-term luxury of not being as specific
as his critics are demanding.

But Bush needs to appreciate the depth of the legitimate frustration
among the conservative wing of the party. And he needs to address it.
They are outraged at perceived betrayals and broken promises of the
Republican Congress, and even more so at the double-speaking,
word-parsing chicanery of Bill Clinton.

In other times, a clear front-runner may be able to coast longer in
the comfort of generalities. Following seven years of Clinton
linguistics however, the public, and especially the right, has no more
tolerance for indirection in communication.

Gov. Bush would be well advised to publicly unveil his specific
conservative positions soon. By doing so, he may avert more third party
defections and squelch the momentum of conservative challengers Forbes
and Bauer.

Bush must not make the mistake that other Republican politicians have
made of believing that the real strength of the party is in the center.
The GOP remains markedly conservative and the sooner Bush convinces the
base of his conservative bona fides the better for his campaign and the
country.

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