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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

The Best and the Worst of a Campaign to Remember; Now Let's 'Bring It On'

November 06, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Whoever wins Tuesday's presidential election, this has been a year, and a campaign, to remember.

From snowy Iowa and New Hampshire through the final frenzied weekend, it has been filled with drama--moments of great tension, humor and exhilaration. It has provided voters with a clear choice and political junkies with the most closely contested race in decades. It has taken the candidates on a roller coaster of surging and crashing emotion. For those on its front lines, it has been turbulent and passionate, unpredictable and unforgettable.

Here's an admittedly subjective list of the year's high and low points. This has been a campaign defined by hairpin turns. Fittingly, it's ending in a swirl of confusion around revelations that George W. Bush was arrested for drunken driving 24 years ago.

Biggest surprise: The three presidential debates providing the vehicle for Bush's revival after Al Gore seized the lead in the polls after the Democratic convention. This was the political equivalent of an American League team, which normally plays with the designated-hitter rule, benefiting in the World Series because its pitchers turned out to be better batters than the National League's team--something no one would ever expect.

Bush's own camp was worried whether he could hold his own in the face-offs with Gore: "Literally no one thought . . . that the way we would recover would be the debate performance," said one senior Bush aide. But the Texas governor, even with some shaky moments, mostly came across as reasonable and competent; above all, he had the good sense to stay out of the way while Gore chewed off his own leg, especially in the first encounter.

Second biggest surprise: GOP vice presidential nominee Dick "Big Time" Cheney, ordinarily a campaigner so starched it's tempting to look for a dry-cleaning tab on his neck, outpointing ebullient Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman in their debate.

Least consequential endorsement: Ross Perot's belated embrace of Bush. That should guarantee Bush big numbers with UFO abductees.

Best one-liners: For Bush, an easy winner: "The soft bigotry of low expectations." The phrase, which Bush uses to denounce the unspoken expectation that students from low-income families will perform poorly in school, is both euphonic and resonant. It was the best of many elegant phrases speech writer Mike Gerson delivered to define Bush's "compassionate conservatism."

For Gore, the pick is a bit harder. His only truly memorable phrase came when he declared in his acceptance speech: "I stand here tonight as my own man." But this formulation proved a mixed blessing. It helped Gore establish his own identity, but it also presaged Gore's more questionable departure from President Clinton's centrist political course--a shift that Bush's team seized on to portray the vice president as a throwback big-government liberal. "You say you're your own man," said Bush media advisor Mark McKinnon. "We said, 'All right . . . you're not a new Democrat; you're not Clinton.' "

Worst miscalculations: So many to choose from, so little space. John McCain's decision after the Michigan primary to attack Christian conservatives at a time when he needed to solidify his standing among core Republicans snuffed out the last hope for his insurgent campaign. Bush had nearly derailed his own campaign a few weeks earlier with a misguided effort to rally the conservative base in South Carolina by appearing at fundamentalist Bob Jones University without condemning its anti-Roman Catholic sentiments.

Gore topped them both by deciding the election was only about the future, not the last eight years. Call it Henry Hyde's revenge: By allowing himself to become so spooked by impeachment and his desire to separate himself personally from Clinton, Gore has refused to aggressively sell the administration's record on the economy, crime, welfare and other issues--thus stripping himself of his best argument, the case for continuity.

Best moments of the campaign: The room was hot and the question hotter: At a town meeting on a steamy February night in Gaffney, S.C., one man wanted to know Bush's plans to control illegal immigration. Bush started conventionally enough, promising to secure the borders. But then he told the man that "family values don't end at the Rio Grande" and that as long as "moms and dads" in Mexico couldn't feed their children at home, they would look to the United States for opportunity. That wasn't the answer his conservative rural audience was waiting to hear; but it showed the capacity for empathy that Americans want in a president.

Gore's best moment came when he picked Lieberman as the first Jew to be on a major party's national ticket. In one stroke, Gore showed a sense for history, an ability to think outside the box and a willingness to roll the dice--all good qualities for a president.

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