Posted on June 14, 1999 in Washington Watch

This week the 2000 presidential race accelerated dramatically as both the Democratic and Republican frontrunners push their campaigns into high gear. Republican George W. Bush, Governor of Texas, makes his long-awaited first campaign trips to both Iowa and New Hampshire, while Democratic Vice President Al Gore formally launches his presidential campaign with visits to Tennessee, New Hampshire, New York and Iowa.

Of the two, Bush’s outing is drawing the greatest press attention. In some ways the Texas Governor remains an enigma. He is untested as a candidate and virtually unknown as a political leader (a recent poll showed that almost one-half of Texans couldn’t name an accomplishment he has achieved as governor). Despite all of this, Bush remains the choice of over 50 percent of all Republicans and the candidate favored by the Republican establishment.

The Bush juggernaut appears to be unstoppable. Even before he begins his formal campaign, Bush has received the endorsement of more than one-half of the Republican members of Congress, more than one-half of the U.S.’s Republican governors and the majority of state senators and representatives across the United States.

Bush is also leading in money raised. In fact, his efforts have been so successful, that other Republican contenders are reportedly having difficulty raising the funds needed to fuel their efforts. Lamar Alexander, for example once thought to be a competitive candidate announced, last week, that he was cutting back on his staff and would be limiting his early campaign to the state of Iowa. The reason behind this Alexander move was that hundreds of his 1996 campaign contributors have shifted to the Bush effort.

There is such an aura of invincibility and inevitability surrounding the Bush campaign that some of his Republican challengers are criticizing what they call “Bush’s coronation” by the establishment.

As the undisputed frontrunner, Bush can expect to be attacked early and vigorously by Democrats and his Republican competitors. The national media will also closely watch him.

Democrats have already begun to focus their attacks on Bush, citing what they call his “flip-flops” on Kosova (at first he was ambivalent and then supported ground troops) and a “no-tax” pledge (first he declined to sign it and then, the next day, he agreed to a modified version).

Because his lead is so great, Bush’s fellow Republican candidates will also be targeting him. Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan have attacked him for supporting China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and for his less than strident approach to abortion.

Dan Quayle, Steve Forbes, Elizabeth Dole and Lamar Alexander have also made it clear that Bush will not get a free ride to the nomination. They maintain, as Forbes recently claimed, that the Republican contest may ultimately be one where “outsiders” challenge the party establishment. Bush’s challengers claim that since he has articulated so few positions, the establishment is supporting him solely on the basis of polls. These they claim are based on his name recognition since most voters still know very little about the Texas Governor.

In an effort to stop the Bush train, the social conservative wing of the Republican Party has issued a pamphlet called “Reasons not to support George Bush”–which they have distributed to their activists and supporters across the United States.

But while these challenges will be substantial, Bush’s biggest threat will be the national media. With over 200 journalists following his initial campaign steps, Bush can be certain that his every move will be scrutinized. As a result, any single misstep can be magnified into a huge mistake.

For this reason, Bush’s advisors have tightly organized their candidate’s first outing. They are restricting press access and controlling Bush’s movements in order to avoid any mistakes.

While this might protect the candidate against any early negative coverage, it also will inhibit his ability to reach out and establish a personal rapport with voters that his opponents have been spending months working to achieve.

Bush can also be certain that while he is now “out of the box” and a full-fledged candidate, the media and his opponents will begin to research and ask questions about controversial aspects of his past personal life. Rumors have long circulated about Bush’s “wild youth” and his business dealings. While the relevance of these charges can be debated, what will be important is how he responds to the charges once they are made, and how Republican voters receive his responses. As Clinton demonstrated in the 1992 election, the ultimate test of a candidate is how he stands up to the onslaught of the media.

The next few months will be of crucial importance for the Bush campaign. If he can escape without a major mistake and maintain his rather substantial lead, then he very well may be the Republican nominee. But, should he falter, his lead could evaporate overnight making the Republican race a real contest.

In part, because of the media hype surrounding the Bush campaign and also because of criticism that his own campaign was lagging, Al Gore decided to move his announcement from September to mid-June.

Gore has long been plagued with the epitaphs that he is “boring” “wooden” and “uninspiring”. While his candidacy is favored by the Democratic Party’s establishment, the press has focused on Gore’s personality, on the lackluster performance of his campaign effort, and on the fears of some Democrats that Gore, who is currently lagging behind Bush in national polls, might not be able to win in 2000.

Even President Clinton became a part of Gore’s problem when a national newspaper quoted the President, at length, as he expressed his concern about the “sluggishness” of the Gore campaign.

Compounding Gore’s worries, the press began to pay rather significant attention to his lone Democratic opponent, former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. For a few weeks there appeared to be a bit of media frenzy about the Bradley campaign. The frenzy was largely undeserved. Bradley has done quite little so far and has actually taken no positions on major issues and yet his fledgling campaign was suddenly drawing significant press attention at the expense of the Vice President. It appeared that Bradley was benefiting from the fact that he was “not Al Gore”.

In an effort to respond to this situation, Gore announced a high-power appointment to head his national campaign. Tony Coehlo, a former Democratic congressional leader, is expected to give focus and direction to the campaign. At the same time, Gore has stepped up his campaign schedule with major launching events this week that will take the candidate across the country.

The test for Gore will be whether or not he can sustain the momentum he will develop after this high power week and whether he can finally shake this “wooden” image or find a way to use it to his benefit.

Both Bush and Gore are encountering what are known as “frontrunner blues”–the fate of early leaders in their respective parties as they face increased scrutiny and high expectations. With over eight months to go before the first votes will be cast in the 2000 primaries, both candidates must find a way to maintain their leads and guide their campaigns through the bitter battles and intense challenges ahead.

The fact that it is still so early in the election means that these two frontrunners must maintain grueling schedules and non-stop campaigning in order not to lose ground in the coming months.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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