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CAMPAIGN 2000

Hoping to Cash In on the Economy

Campaign: Both candidates aim to focus on the nation's prosperity to get them into the White House.

May 01, 2000|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eight years ago, it was the slogan that summed up Bill Clinton's White House strategy against President Bush: "It's the economy, stupid."

With unemployment and inflation still high, Clinton blamed Bush for the economic problems of a nation struggling to leave behind a long recession, trumping Bush's once sky-high approval ratings after the Gulf War.

But this year, with the economy fundamentally sound, the battle between George W. Bush, the former president's son, and Vice President Al Gore, Clinton's protege, is much more likely to be over who gets recognition for the country's unprecedented prosperity.

Gore's Challenge: Getting Credit

In short, it's the good economy, stupid.

"There is widespread perception that other forces have contributed to the economic recovery, whether it's the New Economy or [Federal Reserve Chairman Alan] Greenspan," said Bruce Cain, head of UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies. "The challenge for Gore is to make sure his administration gets credit."

Neither Republicans nor Democrats doubt that a bad economy would hurt Gore. An incumbent administration historically has born the brunt of blame when things go bad.

But while the stock market has been unsettled of late, the basics of the economy remain sound and promise to stay that way through the November election, most analysts believe.

Even a dramatic and unforeseen downturn might have less of an effect on the election than expected, since it takes a long time for the average voter to feel the effects of a reversal in an economic cycle.

Just as the senior Bush wasn't able to benefit from the end of the recession in March 1991, eight months before the November election, so Gore might not be hurt even if the country stops its record economic expansion tomorrow.

"Changes in the economy are relatively slow to hit the man in the street," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, which has conducted statewide surveys for decades in California.

For Bush, the danger of the current prosperity lies in the numbers. Right now, national polls show 35% to 40% believe that the country is on the wrong track--a rough gauge on how voters feel about the economy's health. Historically, the electorate doesn't get upset enough to turn incumbents out of office until that figure soars past 50%.

When Gerald R. Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976, the number of people who thought the country was on the wrong track was in the high 50s. And when Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the number was above 60%.

So, if this were a typical year, Bush would be in a bad position. But GOP officials are betting this election year, like this economic cycle, is not typical.

The numbers are "good enough that you can reelect a Democrat president, but it's not a lock," said Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster.

That's because voters do not necessarily equate the good economy with the current administration, as they normally do, Bush and GOP strategists believe.

Bush media advisor Mark McKinnon points to a recent Fox News poll that showed Americans are far more likely to give credit for the economy to Bill Gates and the high-tech industry than to Clinton and Gore.

In fact, Bush advisors believe that they will be able to neutralize the economy issue, at least in part, by fostering the notion that Gore had relatively little to do with the current record 109 months of solid economic expansion.

Instead, they hope to reinforce the idea that prosperity is the result of the New Economy, fueled by free trade and Silicon Valley.

"Conventional wisdom may be upside-down," McKinnon said. "The economy is always an issue, but I think . . . it has to be viewed in different terms. The Gore camp will try to take credit for the economy. I don't think the voters see it that way."

The issue of taking credit for the economy is an especially sore point for Bush. That's because the Texas governor believes his father was unfairly denied recognition for the turnaround that began during his father's presidency.

Bush said recently that he plans to take every opportunity to remind voters who is really responsible for the economic good times.

"Obviously, a very strong economy is part of what the opposition is going to talk about," Bush said at a recent news conference. "Of course, I'll remind people that this administration no more created wealth than the man I'm running against created the Internet."

Some analysts say the Bush tactic is a smart one. Given the economy's strength, they say, Gore's popularity should be soaring. The fact that it's not is proof that voters don't link Gore and the current good fortune.

"The name that's on the economy is Greenspan," said Allan Meltzer, a political economy professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "If you want to step back and say Gore's responsible, it's hard to make that connection."

Democrats to Focus on Stability

Both Gore and the Democratic National Committee will work to change that perception throughout the fall through political advertising and stump speeches.

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