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Bush Will Hit Gore on Ethics

George W. Bush
George W. Bush campaigns in Cheyenne, Wyo., which held its primary March 11. (AFP)
By Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2000; Page A6

AUSTIN, March 11 - The conventional political wisdom is that Al Gore is Bill Clinton without the personality or the baggage.

Now Texas Gov. George W. Bush wants to give the vice president something to carry around.

Thursday, the Bush brain trust huddled in a daylong session with officials from the Republican National Committee, sharing opposition research and poll data, and hatching out the broad strategy outlines for the coming weeks. The general theme, as conceived by the team, is to challenge Gore's ethics and leave Bush standing alone as the true reformer and candidate best suited to restore honor and dignity to the White House.

That will require the Bush team to create an impression of Gore - while the public is still just getting to know the candidates - as a carbon copy of the integrity-challenged Clinton.

On the table in the second-floor conference room of the Bush campaign headquarters in downtown Austin was a pile of the RNC's research highlighting what the GOP hierarchy believe to be Gore's vulnerabilities. The RNC shared Gore's detailed voting history in Congress, his record of "flip-flops" on issues, and poll data that suggest Gore's negatives soar when voters are reminded of his less glorious moments.

"From Love Story, to Love Canal, to inventing the Internet, to raising money at a Buddhist temple and denying he knew it was a fund-raiser, to claiming he sponsored campaign finance reform, we're finding out a lot about Al Gore - and there's a lot to learn," said a Bush official, who attended the meeting and asked to remain anonymous.

The official rattled off what he said were examples of Gore's history of exaggeration, obfuscation and parsing. "He has a lot in common with President Clinton when it comes to leveling with the American people," the official said.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, who attended the meeting, refused to discuss it other than to say: "We're just getting started to know our nation's vice president real well. Al Gore is no John McCain."

Bush, his advisers say, is excited about the prospect of challenging Gore in a race that won't be constrained by intra-party civility, the way the primary was early on when Bush and McCain kept insisting what good friends they were.

Bush is also determined not to repeat the mistakes he believes he made early this year in New Hampshire, allowing McCain to define him. Instead, Bush plans to strike early and often, defining Gore on his own terms.

Several Bush aides said that the strategy is in the early stages; some decisions will be based in part by what Gore does in the coming days and weeks. For instance, the campaign has shot several television spots attacking Gore's record and statements, and could put them up at a moment's notice. On the other hand, the public may not see any of them, depending on the direction the battle takes.

The strategy - and the fact that the normally tight-lipped Bush campaign was willing to shed any light on it - is illuminating and provides insight into how aggressive the campaign intends to be. In the primary, Bush was able to rely on surrogates, such as Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh and the National Right to Life Committee, to do much of his dirty work. But indications are that the candidate will be shouldering a lot of that burden himself.

"We have to counterpunch on all of the issues that he's going to hit us with," said another Bush aide. "We've got to make sure the race remains about Al Gore and a referendum on Bill Clinton."

That strategy was evident today when the Bush campaign press office quickly put together a news release responding to a Los Angeles Times story that, among other things, raised questions about Gore's claims to federal prosecutors that he was unaware of the details of alleged fund-raising improprieties at the White House. "After all our nation has been through in the last eight years, America deserves a president whose values and integrity we can trust," Bush said, adding that Gore should immediately "clear up the role he played."

When Gore attacked Bush on campaign finance reform last week, Bush struck back instantly, saying a politician who raised money at a temple where people took a vow of poverty had no moral authority to lecture him. The speed and specificity of the response from the typically plodding campaign suggests it was crafted before Gore even uttered his criticism.

Bush knows that he was drawn further to the right in the primary than he had planned, and Gore is already portraying him as a captive of the GOP's extreme right wing. To counter that, Bush plans to return to his message of 1999 with a vengeance. Most of what he's done in the last two weeks has sought to recapture more inclusive themes: preaching about tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, telling reporters about his friendly conversation with Cardinal O'Connor, being introduced by an African American teacher at Tuesday's victory celebration in Austin.

In Bush's own speech that night, he hailed legal immigration and urged the GOP to look for ways to expand the nation's prosperity to those in need.

"That speech wasn't a head feint," said an aide, suggesting a reporter look there for clues to Bush's general election strategy. "We didn't lay it out there to trick people."

Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, said Bush's strategy would not be limited to character and personality issues. He said Bush will challenge Gore on the economy, saying the nation has prospered in spite of, not because of, White House policies. Bush will force Gore to defend military interventions in places such as Haiti and Somalia and explain apparently nonexistent exit strategies in places like Bosnia and Kosovo, Rove said. And he said Bush will compare his education plan, which the Republican says seeks to "save lives," to Gore's, which focuses on repairing buildings.

"Bottom line is, Al Gore is the candidate of the status quo," Rove said.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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