Posted on February 27, 2000 in Washington Watch

The political story at this point in the U.S. presidential election is not who is winning, but how they are winning. In both the Republican and Democratic contests, the candidates are inflicting serious wounds on each other–wounds that will continue to bleed, no matter who wins, until November.

By week’s end, the bitterness exhibited in both parties had reached such disturbing levels that some party leaders issued warnings. Bob Dole, former Senator and the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, called on both Texas Governor George W. Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain to stop attacking each other. “The goal,” said Dole, “is winning in November and …it will be much more difficult to win if our eventual nominee is defined by inaccurate charges and counter charges. On the Democratic side, Senator Joseph Biden, a presidential candidate in 1988, worried that the party was in danger of “tearing itself apart.” He called on candidate Bill Bradley to accept defeat and withdraw from the race in order to stop the intraparty feud.

While the campaign began one year ago as a more or less civilized contest, in both parties, it has devolved into an extraordinarily negative affair.

In the three recent Republican contests, Bush and McCain engaged directly and indirectly, through surrogates, in hostile exchanges.

In South Carolina, for example, Bush’s allies on the religious right utilized a mass phone-banking program to level a series of charges against McCain. One, that particularly irritated McCain, challenged his honesty and integrity. Another stretched and distorted the truth by stating that McCain’s campaign manager was an anti-Christian bigot. There were emails and rumors circulated that McCain had illegitimate children or that he betrayed the United States while captive in Vietnam.

In the Bush campaign’s more public messages, Bush adopted the mantle of the true conservative Republican and suggested that McCain was a liberal like President Clinton, and was mobilizing Democrats to steal victory in the Republican primary.

Unbowed after losing in South Carolina, McCain struck back with a fury in Michigan and Arizona. He responded to the Bush effort in kind using the same phone calling approach to charge that Bush was held hostage by the ideology of the fundamentalist extreme right and was working with anti-Catholic bigots. Further, McCain suggested in his pubic appearances that Bush was “weak” and “inexperienced.”

The Democrats had no primary contest but held one debate during the past few weeks. That event was marked by Vice President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley slashing at each other’s records and campaign proposals. Bradley continued to strike the cord he first played in New Hampshire challenging Gore’s integrity and honesty. Gore, in return, hit at Bradley’s record calling him to task for failing to respond to serious issues while serving as New Jersey’s Senator.

What clearly strikes anyone who watches the candidates’ joint appearances is the harshness and, at times, hostility with which they address each other.

While the outcome of neither the Republican or Democratic contests are certain, in fact, an error or even a minor scandal attributed to any one of the four candidates–especially if it is handled badly by the candidate and his campaign–can completely alter the outcome of this race.

What is certain at this point, however, is that the arguments and attacks now being used in the intraparty skirmishes, will reappear in the general election in November.

The handful of contests that have taken place so far have given shape to the election. First they have trimmed the field–basically to a two-man race in each party. The early battles have defined the issues and the lines of attack.

The major intraparty battles will take place March 7 and March 14. On these two days the majority of both parties’ voters will decide their nominee. By mid-March, in other words, the Republican and Democratic candidates will be decided.

Despite having been wounded and still facing tough challenges, the institutional favorites remain Bush and Gore. McCain has attracted significant press and an emotional public following, especially among independents, moderate Republicans and some Democrats, but Bush has, so far, retained strong Republican support, especially among active conservatives. On the Democratic side, Bradley has been unable to gain traction or national attention in the past three weeks–since the press focus has been on the McCain upheaval. Therefore, going into March, the election still appears to be Gore’s.

If Bush and Gore will be the nominees and face off against each other–their campaigns against each other may, in part, already be playing out in the primary contest.

Like McCain, Gore will no doubt accuse Bush of being hostage to the religious right wing and displaying insensitivity to Catholics and other minorities. He will also challenge the Republican for his huge campaign fund and his exaggerated campaign spending. Like McCain, Gore will also, certainly challenge Bush’s tax cutting proposal noting that it leaves too little money in the treasury to protect the Social Security and the Medicare funds.

Similarly, Bush’s challenges against Gore will almost certainly echo Bradley’s line of attack. Gore will be questioned for his involvement in the alleged campaign finance irregularities of 1996 and he will be challenged for his tendency to exaggerate his record and for his lack of candor.

The general thrust of the charges, both ways, will be the same. Interestingly, however, they may be less hostile in tone.

What the Fall debate will also inherit from the primary campaigns will be the extreme partisanship of the contest. Both Bush and Gore have attempted in their own ways to remain in control of the center of the policy debate. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” his initial refusal to use litmus tests in appointments and his outreach to minorities in the way he has addressed issues like immigration and education–this was the package that the Republican establishment hoped would bring their party victory in November.

In South Carolina and Michigan, Bush’s campaign moved significantly to the right. Bush has retained some of his “compassionate” rhetoric–but has focused more on his conservative roots. To win against McCain’s “independent” challenge, Bush has felt the need to organize his strong Republican support base. This will continue in the remaining primary states.

Gore, too, sought to maintain the centrist ideology that brought Democrats victory in the past two elections. Bradley’s challenge from the left, however, has forced the Vice President to emphasize issues and policies that may cause him to be attacked as “too liberal” in November.

And so, as you watch the next two rounds of primaries in March, it will be interesting to note how they serve not only to determine the winner in each party, but how they set the stage for the final contest in November–defining the issues and challenges that will confront each of the candidates for the presidency.

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