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CAMPAIGN 2000

Bush, Gore Need to Tap Vast Pool of Centrist Voters

News analysis: Stage is set for tumultuous November matchup. Both candidates face challenges on issues that fueled McCain's and Bradley's insurgent campaigns.

March 09, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

After a stormy primary season, all signs point toward a turbulent general election that will pit Al Gore and George W. Bush in a tense competition for independent and centrist voters who begin the race skeptical of both.

Gore and Bush put themselves on track for a November face-off by consolidating their parties' traditional voters against opponents who tried to construct coalitions around calls for political reform. Now Gore, who has virtually clinched the Democratic nomination Tuesday, and Bush, who effectively captured the Republican prize, face a common challenge as they look toward the fall: attracting the less partisan, more independent voters that powered their rivals' insurgencies.

"What Bill Bradley and John McCain point out, among other things, are the vulnerabilities of Gore and Bush: the kind of voters they had appeal to are the kind of voters Bush and Gore didn't have appeal to," says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. "And now we are going to see who can make progress at expanding beyond their base."

The challenge is especially intriguing because neither Gore nor Bush seems an ideal fit for the reform-minded independents who flocked, in particular, to McCain--and could represent the decisive swing vote in November.

Bush faces hurdles because Gore's positions are much closer to McCain's than the Texas governor's are on the key issues McCain stressed: reforming the campaign finance system and rejecting a large tax cut. Bush's cash-drenched campaign--marked by record-setting fund-raising, a decision to abandon the spending limits in the primary and support from controversial independent advertising campaigns--may also make him a hard sell for voters disaffected from big-money politics.

On the other hand, Gore's indelible association with the campaign finance and personal scandals of the Clinton administration makes him an unlikely vehicle for voters seeking change in the capital--what Bush calls a "fresh start" in Washington. McCain, who is expected to suspend his campaign today, conceivably could attract many of those voters as an independent candidate, but he has firmly ruled out a third party bid.

"As it now stands, both Gore and Bush have their work cut out for them to appeal to these people," says John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

Conflicted Public Creates Difficulties

If, as now seems certain, Bush and Gore meet in the fall, that points toward a closely competitive and potentially volatile general election--as the two competitors try to navigate the conflicting impulses of a public largely content with the country's direction but dissatisfied with the tenor and style of politics in Washington.

Each man has already signaled that he will play on one side of that equation, with Gore arguing that it is "risky" to veer from the policies associated with economic prosperity, and Bush offering himself as the antidote to scandal and "eight years of partisanship and gridlock and division."

"I think it stays close," says Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, an independent polling operation. "I don't see the basis by which one of these guys opens up a big lead unless one of them does something clearly stupid."

The effective end of the nomination battles Tuesday set up an eight-month general election campaign that is likely to test the public's patience for candidate arguments, media spin and television advertising. The end came so abruptly--with Gore sweeping Bradley in all 16 Democratic contests, and Bush amassing an apparently insurmountable delegate lead over McCain--that both Gore's and Bush's camps Wednesday were scrambling to shift their focus toward the fall.

In each party, the first question was assessing how the races in the primaries had affected the landscape for the general election.

The most obvious difference has been the narrowing of the polls. While most surveys last fall consistently gave Bush a double-digit lead over Gore, recent polls generally show the Texas governor with a low single-digit advantage, and sometimes no advantage at all.

Last September, for instance, the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed Bush leading Gore nationally by 17 percentage points; their latest survey, released earlier this week, showed the two men in a dead heat. In that survey, Gore led Bush everywhere outside the South, the bedrock of the GOP coalition.

As those numbers suggest, many political observers believe the way Bush was forced to win the GOP nomination--by stressing his conservative credentials and rallying the Republican base against McCain--have made the Texas governor, at least for now, much less attractive to swing voters than he initially looked last summer.

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