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White House Race Is Styled by Substance


Sift through the sound bites and look beyond the polls and you'll find something striking about this year's presidential campaign: a remarkable amount of substance.

Over the past several months--and particularly in the last few weeks--Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have disgorged a raft of policy proposals, addressing everything from arms control to education to Medicare and campaign-finance reform. Soon to come: issues affecting families.

No one is likely to mistake the campaign for a graduate course in public policy. There's plenty of superficial sniping and no shortage of diversionary antics from both presumptive nominees to keep the presidential contest from becoming too scholarly.

Even so, many political observers say this election has already presented the American public with more serious policy initiatives covering a broader range of issues than any presidential campaign they can recall.

"It's a wonkfest," said Marshall Wittman of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

"There's a lot of information out there," agreed Brad Rourke, director of the Project on Campaign Conduct, an election watchdog group. "It's not like choosing Coke over Pepsi.'

The civic-minded may see nothing but goodness in this clash of ideas. But each candidate has tactical reasons for trying to out-wonk the other.

For Bush, it is part of a strategy to seize the political center by redefining the Republican approach to various issues including some, such as education, that have long been the province of Democrats.

For Gore, a famous policy grind, the emphasis on issues is a way to challenge Bush's depth and keep the race from turning into a personality contest, which would likely favor the more easygoing governor.

Candidates Try to Woo Public

For both, it's a way to woo a public increasingly skeptical of sweeping pronouncements or simple solutions. "We are in an era when specificity is a sign of credibility," said Mark Mellman, the pollster for Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. "Do the numbers add up? Do the proposals work? There have to be enough details to satisfy [critics] that it's real and it's sensible."

Specificity can serve a larger purpose as well, indicating what voters might expect from a prospective Bush or Gore administration. "That way," said Ari Fleischer, a Bush spokesman, "if you get elected, you've got a mandate to govern."

That assumes, of course, that voters are paying close attention. Few are--at least at this point. "They're more interested in spending time with their families and planning for graduation or summer vacations, as well they should," said Chris Lehane, press secretary for the Gore campaign. Still, he said, "the details laid out now will provide the foundation for the debate that takes place in the fall, when people do start to tune in."

The content-heavy campaigning goes beyond even 1992, when Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton won the White House and recast his party by enunciating a "New Democrat" agenda that included health care reform, a middle-class tax cut and "ending welfare as we know it."

What Clinton's victory showed was the symbolic power of fresh ideas, said Will Marshall, an issues advisor to Clinton's 1992 campaign. He argued that voters' perception of a candidate and what he or she stands for has grown more important as party labels have become less so.

A presidential candidate can no longer win "just by consolidating the party base. You've got to build a broader electoral coalition," said Marshall, who now heads the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist research group based in Washington. "The way to do that is to reach beyond the shrinking band of true believers in each party to the increasing number of independent voters. . . . It's an argument, and the way you do it in the Information Age is with ideas."

Like Clinton in 1992, Bush has been particularly effective this spring using policy pronouncements as a way to court swing voters and coax his party toward the middle. Moreover, by addressing traditionally Democratic issues such as education, health care and low-income housing, Bush has not only distanced himself from old GOP stereotypes but also erased some of the negative image he acquired in his brutal primary fight with Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Both Campaigns Put Premium on Policy

The main difference from 1992 is that both presidential candidates--not just one--are aggressively competing on the policy front and drawing considerable media notice, thanks to the long wait to the parties' summer nominating conventions.

"It's like an arms race," said Wittman of the Heritage Foundation. "Once it's engaged, you have to match the other side."

The notion of one-upmanship is especially apt for Gore, who has a way of seizing issues and wielding them like weapons. In the primaries it was health care, used to bludgeon fellow Democrat Bill Bradley. Lately, Gore has pummeled Bush over his plans to partially privatize Social Security.

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