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CAMPAIGN 2000

Gore's Barbs at Bush Bring Early Negative Tone to Campaign

Politics: The verbal blasts by the vice president and in turn by the Texas governor's camp run the risk of turning voters off, analysts say.

May 08, 2000|MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just as voter interest in the presidential race was slipping, Al Gore engaged George W. Bush in a rhetorical battle that has injected a negative tone unusually early in the campaign.

Vice President Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee, lobbed a flurry of verbal grenades in recent weeks, calling Bush's attitude "smug" and "arrogant," and dismissing his proposals as "reckless" and "irresponsible."

The Bush bunker fired back with the Texas governor charging that Gore is an "inventor" and "exaggerator" with a "willingness to say anything."

The language is designed to instill voters with negative impressions of their opponents. But experts in political communication say the candidates have to be careful about not slipping into name-calling.

"You don't want to push it so hard that people begin to see it as an assault," said Roderick P. Hart, author of "Campaign Talk," a book about political language. "When language or a label can become a presumption rather than an argument, it works best. There's some magic to when that happens."

Even as both candidates promise to focus on the issues, they're honing a proven strategy of trying to stick labels on each other before one sticks on them.

Gore has been trying to paint a picture of Bush as a flaky, irresponsible lightweight who doesn't have what it takes to run the country. Meanwhile, Bush, mostly through aides, has been calling Gore a negative campaigner who has a problem telling the truth.

"It's all a frame game," said Leonard Steinhorn, former speech writer and professor of communications at American University. "You're going to see those words melting into images they want to communicate."

In the last two weeks, the vice president has been replaying the tactics he used successfully to defeat former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley in the primaries, aggressively attacking his opponent with a litany of words that have a decidedly personal tone.

Gore started the fusillade in Michigan at a news conference April 21: "Gov. Bush seems to have this smug assumption that he can get away with calling himself an environmentalist, despite his record of what has gone so badly wrong in Texas."

In Atlantic City last week, Gore repeatedly accused Bush of having a "secret plan" of Social Security privatization that resembled "stock market roulette."

In Chicago on Thursday, after berating Bush's health care proposal, Gore denied that his verbal assault on the Texas governor amounted to a personal attack. "Vigorous discussion of the substance of the issues is healthy for our democracy," he said.

The constant bombardment of insults so early in the campaign, however, runs the risk of turning off people, analysts say.

"The language does seem to me to be pretty up on the temperature scale for May," said Gary Woodward, professor of communication studies at the College of New Jersey. "We are going to be in utter campaign fatigue by the time the fall rolls around."

It's no accident that Gore is using words like "smug" and referring obliquely to what is described as Bush's smirk.

A poll of almost 1,200 voters in March conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that 31% of people mentioned a negative word like "arrogant" when asked for a one-word description of Bush, up from 21% in September.

Both campaigns look at this data and their own internal polling to craft their message about their opponent.

"What you really have is a game of dueling focus groups," Steinhorn said.

Unlike Bradley, who reacted angrily and somewhat clumsily to Gore's attacks, Bush seems less fazed by the torrent of biting words. He has carefully steered away from personally labeling the vice president, calling himself "a uniter, not a divider."

But in the meantime, Bush has aggressively characterized Gore as untrustworthy.

"It's disappointing that someone running for the highest office of the land would continue saying, and feel free and comfortable about saying, things that simply aren't true," he said Thursday during a swing through Orange County.

The campaign releases updates of "The Gore Detector" that detail "Al Gore's adventures with the truth."

After Gore accused Bush of never having prepared a budget, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "Al Gore's imagination knows no bounds."

Later, Fleischer said Gore's description of the current administration's record on Social Security shows that he "either flip-flopped or he has a real problem with credibility."

Some experts said Gore has been more successful than Bush so far in characterizing his opponent because the Texas governor is still searching for the right words to pin on the vice president.

The most common descriptions associated with Gore--"boring" and "stiff"--don't work because they don't have any political utility, according to Hart, a professor of communication and government at the University of Texas at Austin.

If there's any lesson to be taken from previous campaigns, he added, it's that names won't stick unless there's some public perception that they're true.

For example, attempts to call Ronald Reagan "dangerous" in 1980 didn't work because the public didn't have a sense of him as a threat, Hart said. But calling former President Bush "a wimp" resonated with people who thought of him as a government bureaucrat.

"I think right now what [Bush and Gore] are doing is groping to find labeling devices that might hold," he said, adding he expects they will "continue this lexical search, trying to find the trigger points that will work."

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