Why Establishment Guys Are Trumpeting Reform

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The real Super Tuesday, traditionally the second-Tuesday-in-March swing through the South, has arrived, and in surreal fashion. As the sun went up on the few citizens bothering to cast their votes, the two candidates still standing — both card-carrying members of the political aristocracy — were to be found cranking their newfound message: that they are the true outsiders who would remove the political reins from the clutches of entrenched power. Al Gore, looking over his shoulder at the Buddhist temple debacle and other fund-raising scandals, was attacked by his opponent Tuesday morning as a Beltway insider insulated from the pulse of the people. Meanwhile, George Bush, who lays claim to the largest campaign war chest in history, was reamed for his reliance on soft money, which, said Gore, makes him a slave to special interests.

Behind their new direction, of course, is a desperate attempt to claim the ground occupied until recently by John McCain and his crusade for campaign finance reform. "At this point, voters aren't really paying attention to the candidates' actual proposals," observes TIME Washington correspondent Karen Tumulty, "but campaign finance reform has become a proxy for where a candidate stands as a reformer. It's an issue that defines character, and that's what people are looking to this year." To that end, Gore has been repeating his call for both candidates to forgo all soft money for the rest of the race. Bush, meanwhile, wasted no time in riding news of a leaked memo criticizing Janet Reno's blocking of an independent prosecutor to look into Gore's 1996 fund-raising faux pas. "It's really hard to say how this race is going to shape up," notes Tumulty. "It'll come down to who's more convincing on the issue of character, and who's more believable as a reformer."