The Boston Phoenix
September 7 - 14, 2000


McCain lite, continued

by Seth Gitell

Chris Ingram, a senior vice-president with Luntz Research Companies, another Republican polling firm, agrees. "It's too early to say that Gore has nailed down the `McCain middle,' as we like to call them," he says. "Gore's picked up a little bit of steam with women and your other traditional Democratic minority groups." Nothing will be clear, Ingram adds, until after the debates.

Nevertheless, a detailed analysis of voters published September 3 by the New York Times emphasizes Gore's wisdom in playing to McCain voters. In surveying a series of different polls, the piece summed up the characteristics of those voters who still haven't made up their minds about whom to support in November: "More than half consider themselves independents. They are mostly married, between the ages of 45 and 64. They hold moderate stands on issues." These voters diverge from those who supported McCain in the primaries in that "more than half are women." But this is where Gore's inherent advantage as a Democrat comes into play. Because women generally come home to the Democratic Party in general elections, Gore is playing up just enough of McCain's message to capture the undecided men while remaining enough of a Democrat to draw the women.

It's important to remember one critical point about Gore's embrace of McCain: he's only taking McCain's message, not his strategy. When Bush got into trouble against McCain, he went negative. The Bush team -- lead by strategist Karl Rove -- eviscerated McCain in South Carolina. And the former Navy pilot failed to fight back until it was too late. Gore won't make that mistake.

One of the advantages enjoyed by the Gore campaign is a professional, finely tuned war room and research department that can quickly respond to any negative allegation. As reported in the August 31 Novak column, the Gore camp deftly countered Cheney's claim that his Halliburton stock-option problem mirrored the difficulty faced by Robert Rubin, who owned a piece of Goldman Sachs when he was appointed to Clinton's cabinet. Rubin did not continue to hold stock options during his tenure as secretary of the Treasury. Instead, he transferred his holdings into debt -- and lost millions of dollars when Goldman went public, according to Novak. Rubin certainly did not reap the financial rewards of the Wall Street boom he presided over -- although if he had, given the way so many people have profited in recent years, it would have been much fairer than it would be if Cheney won millions of dollars on the back of some Bush-inspired foreign-policy/oil-money boondoggle.

Last week, Bush approved an ad attacking Gore for his role in the Democratic fundraising scandals of 1996. The commercial blasts Gore for his visit to a Buddhist monastery during Clinton's election fight against Bob Dole. By running the ad, Bush has broken a pledge not to engage in negative campaigning. And Gore has wisely decided to sit back and let the press bash Bush -- he's even encouraged the media criticism with no fewer than two press releases detailing his rival's broken promise. Almost no one is talking about the substance of the ad, which marks Bush's only foray into the issue of campaign-finance reform. They're talking about what the ad says about Bush.

"When it came to fighting back against George Bush in the primary campaign, John McCain failed," says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "The Gore campaign, on the other hand, knows one thing well: how to fight back."

Meanwhile, one Washington Republican insider who's partial to Bush says, "They've got to do something. They don't have a winning game plan. People in Washington are saying he needs new blood. The Bush team is terrific -- when they don't have an opponent who fights back. Where they have problems is when somebody fights."

If Bush continues his downward spiral and Gore prevails in November, McCain might yet get his chance to run as the Republican nominee. But not until 2004. Until then he'll just have to hope that Gore as "McCain lite" has the magic and strength to prevail. That's the way things look now.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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