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Change, Credibility Underlie Campaign

Politics: In an era of 'gotcha politics' and an increasingly skeptical electorate, candidates don't have the luxury of being able to flip-flop.


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — George W. Bush gives one stern lecture when it comes to personal change and its place on the campaign trail. It has none. Al Gore "changes his tune" all the time. And that, says the Republican nominee for president, is the problem with his Democratic rival.

"I haven't changed my message since I got started in this campaign," Bush told a crowd here last week. Earlier, in Marion, Ill., the Texas governor proclaimed with pride that "I didn't try to reinvent my candidacy in the middle of a campaign."

In hotly contested Michigan late Friday, Bush declared that his "position has been consistent. I haven't fine-tuned. I haven't altered. I haven't changed."

Bush believes that being elected on an unchanging message would give him a mandate to sway Congress. He believes that America does not trust his opponent. He believes unwavering means credible.

The interplay of change and credibility is the undercurrent of the 2000 campaign, a red flag in the polls for the vice president, a regular theme for Bush as election day nears and one reason the race remains breathtakingly tight.

While the century changes and the world shifts, candidates don't have the same luxury. Flip-flopping is a common political attack, one that does not allow for personal growth, evolving conditions or shifting public attitudes. It is a charge that is increasingly easy to make and difficult to escape.

At fault are "gotcha politics," an increasingly skeptical electorate and technology that captures and replays a politician's every word--usually at a bad time, often in attack ads, invariably in ways that are difficult to counter. "Our standards about consistency have increased, partly for technological reasons," says political scientist Bruce Cain. "It's a mixed blessing."

While so-called opposition research, employed by campaigns to sniff out weakness and deception in rivals, sometimes points out real inconsistency, "it also introduces a rigidity that may not be good for governance," Cain says. "You cannot foresee all the uncertainty in life."

Various kinds of personal transformation crop up in political life--change in style, change in message, pandering for political gain, true evolution. How you feel about them often depends on where you stand in relation to the switch.

"It's growth when it's your candidate; it's flip-flopping when it's the other guy," says Dan Schnur, former communications director for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who battled Bush in the primary.

Democratic strategist Bill Carrick points to Robert F. Kennedy as "a quintessential example of someone who started in one place and moved to a different one." Kennedy, for example, shifted from "a defender of our Vietnam policy to a passionate opponent" and evolved in his embrace of the civil rights movement. "None of that happened without criticism," Carrick said, "but in our current politics, none of that would be possible to do."

Bush More Passionate on Education Reform

Truth be told, Bush himself has changed. The longer he has served in public office, many analysts say, the more passionate he's become about education reform, elevating it from one of several issues he focused on when running for governor in 1994 to a centerpiece of his Texas tenure and his campaign for the White House. His message has changed too, evolving outward from his first days as a self-proclaimed "compassionate conservative," through a spell as a "reformer with results," a period as a broker of "prosperity with a purpose," a stint as purveyor of "real plans for real people" and later as a salesman of "tools for parents." In this last week on the campaign trail, the slogan is "bringing America together."

And he has been varyingly Republican throughout his run for the White House. Bush began as a moderate, lost the New Hampshire primary, then took a hard right turn, heralded by a fiery defense of conservative values at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The school prohibited interracial dating. One school leader considered Catholicism a cult.

While Bush spent the summer reaching back to moderate voters, in recent weeks he became increasingly Republican again. On a campaign swing earlier this month in Iowa, Illinois and Florida, he stressed core conservative values.

On Friday morning in Kalamazoo, Mich., Bush made a rare foray to a Christian high school, where he lauded "pregnancy crisis centers," which offer an alternative to abortion. Later in the day at an Indiana rally, he was introduced by the Republican candidate for governor, who said that the Texan would take America back along "the path of moral values, the path of families."

Cain, director of the UC Berkeley Institute of Government Studies, argues that Bush has undergone "three or four major transformations along the way" to the White House, with the Bob Jones shift being the most disingenuous.

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