WASHINGTON — This has been a strange election year. Voters have
flipped back and forth between Republican nominee George W. Bush and
Democratic nominee Al Gore. Some are drawn, analysts tell us, to Gov.
Bush because of his “likability,” while others admire Vice President
Gore’s “fighting spirit” as evidenced by his acceptance speech at last
week’s Democratic National Convention.

But what voters really seem to like this year, as opposed to other
years, is substance. They want facts, figures, percentages and plans —
either real or imagined. Real is better — but imagined is OK, too.

To wit, take Gov. Bush’s performance after he clinched his nomination
in the primaries. Almost all political analysts here in Washington
agreed that in the period following the end of the contested primaries
in March, Dubya used that time more effectively than Vice President Gore
to further his candidacy. His poll numbers reflect that. Beginning in
March, Bush led Gore in most polls by seven to 10 points, and by June,
he had a 13-point lead in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. Why?

Not because of his sparkling personality, although that’s what voters
seemed to say. I think it was because his campaign unleashed a series
of substantive proposals that originally sought to deflect criticism
Bush lacked “gravitas,” which was a nice way of saying Bush was dumb.
He began giving speeches on foreign policy, he talked about a long-term
7.4 billion-dollar health care proposal, he unveiled a tax-cut plan
worth $1.3 trillion over 10 years, as well as other initiatives on
education and Social Security. All were well-crafted, eminently
defensible, and received with respect by a somewhat surprised press.
Suddenly, there was some beef to the governor’s candidacy and his poll
numbers, which had been steady to that point, began to skyrocket.

It was after those proposals had been laid down that Bush’s charm
offensive among the national press corps — as opposed to Vice President
Gore’s lack of availability to the media — began to pay off. Bush
began receiving the kind of positive press that Republicans would die
for and Democrats have come to expect. Heading into his convention,
Bush could hone his acceptance speech and use it to introduce himself to
the American public. He succeeded, too.

But so did Vice President Gore. In his acceptance speech at the
Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, the vice president
decided to chuck any attempt to remake his “image” for specifics. He
touted a targeted tax-cut, a prescription drug benefit for seniors under
Medicare, school construction, a patients’ bill of rights, campaign
finance reform, no support for vouchers, tax deductions for college
tuition and a whole host of other proposals.

Reporters and analysts dumped all over it at first, calling it a
“State of the Union” address, not an acceptance speech. But voters
seemed to appreciate being told what the candidate wanted to do. Hence,
there was a substantial convention “bounce” that saw Gore tie Bush or
vault ahead of him in various polls. The convention bounce also allowed
reporters to chuck the old script about Gore (something they were
waiting to do anyway) and raise fresh doubts about Bush. Reporters
think they are merely evening things up with positive accounts of Gore
after months of friendly coverage of the Texas governor. This should
last until the debates begin in October when reporters will feel they’ve
done enough for Gore and now the two candidates should rely on their own
merits or faults to win or lose the election. But don’t doubt there
will still be sentiment for Gore. Some things never change.

Meanwhile, Bush has been getting plenty of advice on what to do in
the face of Gore’s advance but, if you notice, he’s begun getting
substantial again. He offered specific numbers on how one middle-class
family in New Orleans could save big bucks with his tax cut plan and now
he’s talking about foreign policy in Latin America. In at least one
poll that accurately reflected Gore’s bounce from Los Angeles —
Rasmussen Research’s “Portrait of America” survey — Bush is back up to
a seven-point lead among 2,250 likely voters sampled from August 22-24.
Was that due mainly to the normal fade of Gore’s bounce? Or was it that
Bush was beginning to match Gore in substance?

I think much of the latter, and if Rasmussen’s observation that Bush
is gaining again is reflected in other polls (the latest Gallup poll
comes out on Tuesday), a grudging turn of press coverage may even begin
earlier than I suspect. But I doubt that will happen.

Gore’s numbers, say most analysts here, will fade and Bush may sprint
out to a slight lead by Labor Day which is seen much as July 4 is for
the major leagues in baseball. Whoever leads then is likely to win in
the fall and history backs up that claim more often than not. But if
the two are statistically tied, look for a high-stakes crapshoot in the
presidential debates which will dominate October and the campaign.

Neal Lavon
covers politics and other issues for the Voice of America in Washington. The views he expresses are his own.

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