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WASHINGTON — Who would have ever thought Campaign 2000 would come
down to this? Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate
George W. Bush lecturing vice president and Democratic presidential
candidate Al Gore on foreign policy and winning the debate.

The twin crises of the terrorist attack on the U.S.S. Cole and the
disintegration of the administration’s Middle East peace process based
on the cooperation of Yasser Arafat have suddenly shoved foreign policy
to center stage in the presidential campaign. Strangely, this has been
working to the advantage of George W. Bush.

Usually, the conventional wisdom is that in foreign crises, the body
politic rallies around the president. But rarely do foreign crises occur
smack dab in the end game of a presidential election. And this foreign
policy predicament, it can be argued, is the result of administration
initiatives that many analysts in Washington predicted would implode.
When it did finally erupt in flames these past two weeks in the Middle
East, the entire peace process — and the administration’s role in it –
became fair game for criticism.

But Gov. Bush has to tread carefully. For one thing, he’s already
scored points with voters and foreign policy opinion leaders by publicly
backing the administration (“speaking with one voice”) in the Middle
East both in his debate last week and in subsequent statements.
Secondly, given the governor’s penchant for gaffes and verbal slips, a
miscue in foreign policy could have disastrous effects. Better to look
good backing the administration, avoid problems and gain foreign policy
bona fides while gently raising a point or two in opposition.

So strangely, while the Democrats began to blast away on Bush’s
stewardship in Texas — which is fair criticism and on which the
governor can be held accountable — the Republican team is beginning to
link the Middle East crisis to higher oil prices, dependency on foreign
crude, and now other foreign policy problems. Bush this week began to
criticize Vice President Gore’s 1995 agreement with the Russians that
permitted the Kremlin to fulfill its arms sales contracts with Iran
through the end of last year. The only problem is that the Russians have
shown no inclination to stop, according to the New York Times, despite
the administration’s protestations. This can’t look good for Gore.

Suddenly, the Republicans are dealing forcefully with front-page
international crises, showing restraint while doing so, and hinting that
perhaps an administration with Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, et al., might
just be a better and safer bet for the U.S., given the present
situation, than four more years of Al Gore. The Democrats’ complaints
about health care in Texas and tax breaks for the rich pale in
comparison.

If the situation in the Middle East remains tense and in the
headlines for the next week, the third and final debate could once again
be dominated by these issues. That would help Bush, as the two previous
debates surprisingly have, and continue the electoral momentum now
flowing his way. Even if a summit is eventually scheduled, the policy
would still be open to question and now, the governor’s military
critiques (why in the throes of a Middle East crisis would U.S.
officials refuel a destroyer in a port so linked to terrorists as
Yemen’s Aden?) could be levied with even more devastating effects.

Look for Gore to take off the gloves this week and really attack Bush
on Texas. The governor better be ready to defend his record with more
specific answers and numbers than just saying he’s spent 4.7 billion
dollars to fix the problems. Also, the press will likely hold Bush to a
higher standard now following Democrats’ complaints that Bush was
getting away with the same kind of mistakes and falsehoods for which
Gore had been pilloried.

If the governor can hold the vice president to a draw on these
attacks, like he did last week, he should be able to prevail on foreign
policy. It’s difficult with the “town forum” format in next week’s
debate to predict exactly what’s going to be asked and if the candidates
will address each other or the questioner, but Bush has been gaining
strength and confidence in these encounters. An all-out negative assault
from Gore could backfire as well, but only if Bush can deflect the
charges.

Another good performance from Bush could “close the sale,” or at
least convince enough voters to bring the contract home, stick it in a
drawer, watch the rest of the baseball playoffs, and then settle on a
future date for the closing. How does Tuesday, Nov. 7, sound?




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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