ALEXANDRIA, VA. — Texas Gov. George W. Bush accomplished precisely what he needed to in Philadelphia. The GOP convention showcased inclusiveness and tolerance. If success is measured by the bounce, the polling euphemism for a surge in polling numbers, the convention was a huge success. According to CBS News polling, the Bush-Cheney ticket bounced by 9%.
Now the attention turns to the vice president and his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. Clearly, Lieberman has energized the Gore campaign. But Gore's selection of Lieberman also speaks volumes about the vice president's calculating nature.
Gore recognizes that his major vulnerability revolves around ethics, character and Clinton fatigue. But his attempt to cleanse himself of the Clinton stain by choosing the first Democratic senator to condemn the president's behavior with Monica S. Lewinsky will be seen by the public for what it is: a hollow gesture. In interviews after he made his veep choice, Gore claimed that he agreed with Lieberman's rebuke of Clinton and said so at the time. Yet, his words on the day of the House impeachment vote--"I believe [Clinton] will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents"--tell a different story. Gore did not speak out against Clinton until June 1999, when he began his quest for the White House and realized just what an albatross Clinton would be.
So what must Gore do to lower the GOP bounce and get back into a competitive position?
He must first step out from Clinton's shadow. But that won't be an easy task, because Clinton seems reluctant to step out of the national limelight.
Second, Gore must define himself and articulate his core values. But that won't be easy, because Lieberman's positions on school vouchers, Social Security, tort reform, capital-gains tax reduction and missile defense are more in line with Bush-Cheney's. So much for core values when Gore asks Lieberman to change.
But what's the surprise here? Gore's core values have changed. So why can't Lieberman's? We have all heard about Gore and tobacco, Gore and abortion, Gore and guns. But what about Gore and school vouchers? Last week, he was opposed, but three days after he chose Lieberman, he was quoted as saying, "If I was the parent of a child who went to an inner-city school that was failing, I might be for vouchers, too."
What does the National Education Assn. think about his evolving position, not too mention his host this week, California Gov. Gray Davis? What about those Latino and African American parents who are looking for relief from schools that have trapped their children? Too bad. St. Albans, Gore's prep school, is OK for Al Gore Jr. and Al Gore III but not possible for these children. Gore's convictions are core only when they benefit Gore.
Finally, the vice president has to become more likable and connect with voters on their level. That won't be easy, either. But his chance will come Thursday night, when he gives his acceptance speech. Will he jolt a content electorate with a rousing speech that, once and for all, defines who he is? Will he take back some of the ground that Bush has taken from him on issues--education, Social Security, health care, Medicare--that are normally Democratic turf?
Gore will likely receive a bounce from his convention, but will it be enough? Will he reclaim the lead in California, a crucial state for him and a state in which the race is now even? What about such critical states as Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania? Will he gain a foothold with male voters and, in particular, independent males who, according to our polling, give Bush the edge, 48% to 27%? What will post-Labor Day polls show? Typically, the leader at that juncture is elected president, with the exception of 1948 and 1960.
Bush must be prepared for an aggressive, competitive contest against Gore, one in which the vice president will sacrifice his principles, as he has already done with Lieberman's, to get elected. *