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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Gore Needs to Make Change if Swing Voters View Election as a Coin Flip

If voters see their election day decision as involving little more than who they would rather watch on the evening news for four years, Bush's easy manner gives him an edge over the still sometimes robotic Gore.

May 01, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

For the past two months, the only person in America who has grabbed more television time than Regis Philbin has been Elian Gonzalez. And yet, when federal agents plucked the 6-year-old Cuban boy from his relatives' Miami home, the country barely shrugged. Congressional Republicans waiting for an outraged uprising against the Clinton administration found themselves alone at the barricades.

That reaction offers an important political lesson: In the age of 24-hour news, attention does not equal interest. Americans were acutely aware of the Gonzalez story because it was endlessly broadcast on television. But, as it turned out, for most people that's all the story was: television. They watched it as they would an engaging soap opera. In the end, it had no more intimate connection to their lives than that. "The truth is," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, "while the story was gripping, it was not involving. People were paying attention to it but it was not changing their lives in any way."

To a considerable extent, the same was true of impeachment: As fascinated as they were by the revelations of President Clinton's misdeeds, most Americans never developed an emotional interest in punishing him for them. (Indeed, for most Americans, the dominant emotion was a desire to end the controversy and move the story out of their living rooms.) Even the stock markets' gyrations may be attracting more attention than interest. More Americans than ever own stock but most people still don't have enough invested to feel themselves immediately rising and sinking with the Dow.

The same gap between attention and interest seems to define the country's early attitude toward the presidential race. The level of attention is meager, and genuine interest is more sparse yet. Outside of hard-core partisans, it is hard to find a sense of urgency about whether Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush should succeed Clinton. To many Americans, the choice seems no weightier than whether to wake up by watching Katie or Diane.

In some ways, this nonchalance is a good thing. It is a measure of a country largely content and at peace. Who sits in the Oval Office matters less when voters are not demanding much from Washington.

There's a second positive development in the lack of passion surrounding the presidential race: Most voters not firmly attached to one of the parties ultimately may find both Gore and Bush reasonable choices. Both are grounded enough in their party's traditions to ensure real differences between them. But both are bending enough toward the center to make themselves acceptable to most swing voters. And each can claim contrasting strengths that Americans value in a president: Gore, a deeper command of domestic and foreign issues; Bush, a clearer record of building the bipartisan coalitions it will take to get things done in a narrowly divided Congress. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, many voters may conclude.

If that sentiment lasts through the fall--if swing voters view the election as a coin flip--Gore probably has more to fear than Bush. Such an attitude would benefit Gore in one respect: Many voters who do not see much difference between the two may be reluctant to change course when they are generally satisfied with the country's direction.

But Bush could benefit as much from the natural desire for a cast change after the same party has held the White House for two terms--a tendency magnified by Clinton's impeachment. And if voters see their decision as involving little more than who they would rather watch on the evening news for four years, Bush's easy manner gives him an edge over the still sometimes robotic Gore.

Which is why Gore's most immediate challenge may be to raise the stakes in the election. Gore began that effort last week with speeches sharpening his policy differences with Bush on the economy, education and foreign policy. The vice president will continue Tuesday with another address on gun control and crime.

Gore is hoping to sell two underlying messages. One is that Bush is more conservative than Americans think. The other is that Bush's agenda poses a risk to the positive trends of the Clinton years--especially in the economy. Don't surf over to a new show, Gore is telling the country, unless you're really sure you want to watch something else.

Neither of those arguments will be simple to sell. Bush served notice again last week that he will be a formidable competitor for moderate voters. In a series of appearances, he highlighted his commitment to working with Democrats--which, in fact, has been a hallmark of his Texas career. And he continued to display an ease with issues and groups usually ceded to Democrats--talking passionately, for instance, about improving education for low-income students before a skeptical audience of teachers in North Carolina.

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