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Bush Grinds the Gears as He Shifts His Message Strategy


KENNER, La. — Watching George W. Bush on the campaign trail this week gave proof that parallel universes do exist, at least in presidential elections, where dueling scripts play out with different audiences and media markets in mind.

Most days, presidential campaigns try to focus on a single message, because a clear story line can help shape voters' opinions and dueling signals can dilute the effect. This week, however, has been politically bipolar for the Bush campaign, which promised earlier to zone in on education.

Starting with a stumble while explaining his massive tax cut this week, Bush discussed education at a local college one moment, then touted his tax plan by showing off a family of four, largely to the national media here, the next.

This week the Bush campaign wanted voters to hear two distinct messages, but most only heard one, depending on where they live and how they get their news.

It was a rare moment of discord for the finely tuned Bush campaign, which during the primary season and through most of the summer had managed the media so that Bush's local and national messages largely meshed. The result was a clear and consistent image of the candidate.

This week, however, that control has appeared to slip some, offering a window into how politics and the media--both local and national--operate.

"It is important to balance the local and national media. They each have different needs and cover things differently," said Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University. "Recently, [Bush] has been less adept and more easily thrown off message. This could be one reason he's gone down in the polls."

Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, said that Bush has not gone off message. Bush is actually shifting his strategy, she said, and "throughout the fall campaign, we will have multiple messages. That's the nature of the fall campaign."

Whether Bush's gears are shifting or slipping, the multiple messages were evident all week, especially Thursday, when the Republican presidential nominee rolled out a family of four here to show how his tax cut plan is superior to Vice President Al Gore's.

Standing beside Andrew and Margaret Bechac and their little girls, pretty in pink, Bush told a small cluster of national reporters in a tiny, crowded general aviation terminal that he was "putting a face on the tax relief package."

Living Examples of Plan's Effect

His 10-year, $1.3-trillion tax cut plan, he charged, would give the family a $1,600 break, while Gore's would give the family nothing; Gore's "so-called targeted tax cut means that some are targeted out of tax relief."

The Bechacs happily helped Bush defend the tax plan and its effect on working families. "We really need this tax plan," Andrew Bechac, 33, told the national press corps. "What would I do with the money? I would put it in an education trust fund for my children."

Half an hour later and a few miles away, there Bush was at New Orleans' Dillard University, surrounded by African American educators, in front of a full complement of local and national journalists, promising to increase funding to "historically black colleges and universities" by $437 million over five years and to give schools whose student bodies are more than 25% Latino an extra $166 million.

Bush and his staff have talked taxes to the national press corps--at 30,000 feet in the campaign plane, on the sidelines of campaign events, in a Louisiana airport terminal with no local reporters present.

In contrast, local media outlets have largely gotten a healthy dose of education: the Republican reading to children, the candidate chatting about curricula at campus after campus, the nominee talking teaching.

Earlier, the campaign said that it had blocked out most of the two weeks following the Democratic convention to talk about Bush's education platform: accountability in the classroom and a $5-billion reading program. But tax talk consumed the campaign Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Bush did not campaign Wednesday.

Monday night, at a Des Moines fund-raiser, Bush gave a rambling and confusing explanation of how it is possible to cut taxes and fund a plethora of new programs without breaking the federal budget. Tuesday, Bush visited schools in Peoria and St. Louis, but he and his staff spent much of the day trying to explain to the traveling press corps just what the candidate had said Monday.

Coverage in Wednesday's papers was dramatically split: The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, for example, all focused on taxes, on Bush's verbal gaffes and his need to defend his tax plan against attacks by Gore.

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