Posted on September 20, 1999 in Washington Watch

The political big news this week is potentially bad news for both the Democratic and Republican frontrunners in the 2000 presidential contest.

Just six months ago it appeared that Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Governor George W. Bush would easily sail to their respective party’s nominations. They now face some bumps in the road.

Gore’s only challenger, former Senator Bill Bradley, has been steadily gaining on the Vice President. Polls out this week show Bradley running even with Gore in two key primary states, New Hampshire and New York. While national polls still show Gore well ahead of the former Senator, the fact that Bradley has climbed nationally to the mid-30 percent range, shows that his campaign is within striking distance of upsetting the Vice President’s bid.

In the states where Bradley has worked the hardest, New York and New Hampshire, his having tied the Vice President is causing the Gore camp some real concern. Analysts have posed several explanations for this development. Most often cited is what some are calling “Clinton fatigue,” that is, voter weariness with the Clinton Administration–and by implication, its Vice President. Another factor is concern with Gore’s style. He has been portrayed as “boring” and “stiff.” Some feel that his absence of charisma is turning off voters who find the Vice President uninspiring.

More worrisome to the Gore campaign is the assessment by some that Bradley’s growing support is a reaction from loyal Democrats who are concerned that the Vice President’s negative ratings are too high and the he cannot win the Presidential election against a Republican. The shift to Bradley is, therefore, based on the assumption that “anyone but Gore” can win.

The Vice President’s slide in momentum is reflected not only in recent polls, but also in money raised. While Gore is still outraising Bradley, he’s also spending more. It is estimated that when the next financial reports are published, both campaigns will report near equal amounts of “cash on hand.” This will give further credibility to a Bradley challenge.

The Gore campaign has responded to this situation by making some key staff changes and accelerating their campaign strategy.

While Bradley has won some key endorsements during the past months, the bulk of major endorsements continue to fall on the Vice President’s side. Gore has the overwhelming majority of elected Democratic officials supporting his bid and is expected to add the critically important endorsement of the organized labor movement.

The Vice President’s supporters acknowledge the reality of “Clinton fatigue,” but note that this is an expected phenomenon. They counter by noting that while it is normal that voters feel fatigue in a President’s seventh year, that feeling frequently turns to support and, even pre-nostalgia, in a President’s final year. They point to a similar transformation between Reagan’s seventh and eighth years in office and how that transformation affected then Vice President Bush’s presidential aspirations.

Bradley’s quiet, but steady campaign style, has so far served him well. He certainly has benefited from the Vice President’s problems, but now faces the challenge of establishing his own credibility and viability as a real alternative. For months now, Bradley has promised “big solutions” and “big ideas.” Democratic voters are waiting to see if he can deliver both ideas and excitement.

The odds still favor Gore. He holds continuing institutional support from the Democratic establishment. But, for the first time since this campaign began, it now looks like it will be a contest that will have to be fought to be won.

The situation facing George W. Bush is more complex, but not less challenging. News this week that conservative TV commentator Pat Buchanan may bolt the Republican Party to run an independent race for the Presidency on the Reform Party ticket has convulsed the Republican Party.

For months now, Buchanan and other conservative Republican candidates have been expressing their dissatisfaction with both Bush and the rush of the Republican establishment to crown Bush as the nominee. As Bush’s campaign war chest grows (now almost $50 million) and as his endorsement list grows to include virtually every national Republican leader, Bush is simultaneously focusing his campaign away from winning the Republican nomination toward the 2000 contest against the Democrats.

As a result, the Texas Governor developed a more centrist approach on issues in an effort to attract groups that have been disenchanted by recent Republican campaigns: women and minorities.

Bush’s strategy has pleased the Republican establishment, desperate to win back the White House after eight years. However, it has enflamed the party’s right wing who have felt betrayed by this apparent abandonment of their hard-line conservative views.

Seen in this light, Buchanan’s announcement that he may leave the party was termed by another conservative presidential candidate, Gary Bauer, as a “wake-up call” to the party. A Buchanan departure may have the effect of consolidating conservative support behind one of Bush’s remaining challengers, causing a deep rift within the party. In an effort either to keep Buchanan and his supporters in the party, or to reestablish his own bona fides as a real conservative, Bush may be pushed into an ideological corner that will make him a less popular candidate should he win the Republican nomination.

It should be noted that despite a strong lead in the polls and his overwhelming financial edge, Bush is still a vulnerable candidate. Most Americans still know very little about the Texas Governor. A recent poll once again showed that twice as many Americans think he is the former President as those who know he is the son of President Bush and the Governor of Texas. While Bush has apparently so far survived the recent flap over suggestions of cocaine use, it has not been without damage. His negative rating in one recent poll doubled from 15 percent to 28 percent. And as a candidate he has not yet engaged in the rough and tumble of debates on critical issues. Even his supporters worry how the Governor will fare against challengers more skilled and knowledgeable about complex international issues.

A further impact of a potential Buchanan independent challenge is that it would create a highly volatile November 2000 election. While no one expects that Buchanan could win the Presidency (he may not even win a contested Reform Party bid), Buchanan’s entry into a third party would make that party a real competitor in 2000. As Republicans saw in 1992, the Reform Party challenge, when viable, took valuable votes away from their candidate, making their chances of winning more difficult.

As I have noted all along, the 2000 race will be close and exciting–closer and more exciting than most predicted six months ago.

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