The Grudge Match

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Everybody had a short list for Al Gore's running mate last week. Gore himself walked the beaches of Figure Eight Island, N.C., mulling his options and making up his mind. But 400 miles away in Philadelphia, George W. Bush made the decision for him. He picked Bill Clinton. "Our current President embodied the potential of a generation," the Republican nominee said Thursday night in his convention speech. "So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill... So much promise... Instead of seizing this moment, the Clinton-Gore administration has squandered it... And now they come asking for another chance."

After losing twice to Clinton-Gore, the Republicans are confident that this year they can beat Gore-Clinton. By making the election a referendum on the President, Bush has seen to it that this campaign will be about 1992 as much as 2000 — a chance for the son to avenge the father and for people to decide whether they got it right eight years ago.

As if to make sure no one missed what was really going on, the warriors of 1992 began sniping at each other. Clinton flashed his naughty, can't-help-myself smile at a Rhode Island fund-raiser and told the audience that W.'s message is "'How bad could I be? I've been governor of Texas, my daddy was President... Their fraternity had it for eight years [so] give it to ours for eight years.'" President Bush shot back on the "Today" show with a threat to "tell the nation what I think about him as a human being and a person." (With those words, he did.) Then Dick Cheney, who was President Bush's defense secretary and is candidate Bush's running mate, sidled up to the lectern in Philadelphia and said, "Mr. Gore will try to separate himself from his leader's shadow, but somehow we will never see one without thinking of the other." It was hard to see Cheney without thinking of a gray sheriff from some late-period Clint Eastwood western, riding out of retirement to drive off the rascals who'd plundered his town. With a soft voice and a rusty delivery to make his attack lines go down easy, the man from Wyoming stole Al Gore's best bullet from 1992 and shot it back at him: "It is time for them to go."

America has always loved rematches, fierce rivalries full of emotion and tangled history: Yankees and Dodgers, Frazier and Ali, 49ers and Cowboys. And now Bush-Cheney-Bush against Clinton-Gore-Clinton. Let the rematch begin.

All week long, the Man from Hope was hovering over the Republican convention. He was not merely its target but also its inspiration. When Bush said Thursday night that he is "not running in borrowed clothes," it was a deft dig at Gore but not altogether true, because Bush is fighting his father's fight with weapons borrowed from the enemy camp. His convention stole the script to Clinton's 1996 multicultural lovefest in Chicago, from the soaring gospel choirs to the fluffy centrist themes to the remote video hookups that beamed the candidate into the arena as he rolled through the heartland on his way to town. For the Bush video biography, his media team mapped the genome of Clinton's 1992 and 1996 convention films, cloning the wifely testimonials and the folksy candidate voice-overs. And then there was the speech.

Republicans have been moaning for years about how Clinton steals their issues and makes them his own. On Thursday, Bush came up with a GOP triangulation, moving to the political center and rising above the conflict found there. It isn't easy to exploit Clinton fatigue while dodging the unpopular Republicans who pushed for impeachment, but Bush gave it his best shot. "I don't have enemies to fight," he claimed, "and I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years."

What he did have was a satchelful of issues the Democrats consider their property — promises to "fix" Social Security and "repair" Medicare, "share that gift" of education with every child and "make prescription drugs available and affordable for every senior who needs them." So far, Bush's campaign proposals don't come close to meeting those great goals. He hasn't offered a prescription-drug benefit, and his rough plan to let people invest some of their Social Security dollars in the market apparently causes the Social Security trust fund to run dry and requires borrowing from general revenues. Other parts of Bush's argument are equally strained. To deny the Democrats credit for the prosperity and accuse them of driving the country "downhill," he backdates the boom and pretends it began before Clinton took office.

Gore will make these points at his convention next week, of course, but doing so could cast him as the stern dad who stops the music and sits everyone down for a serious talk. What fun is that? Bush seems to be asking. Let Gore sow fear and wag his fingers; I'll snap mine and sing a song for swingin' voters. Bush's optimism recalls Reagan's — and Clinton's — and adds a degree of difficulty to Gore's task. He's got to attack Bush's credibility and set the record straight while also spreading some sunshine of his own.

Gore could take lessons on that from Bush. The Texas governor cushioned his call for "a responsibility era" by praising the '60s generation (it "tested limits, and our country in some ways is better for it"). And he swathed his attack on Clinton in generous praise (talent, charm, skill) that made his critique cut deeper. In a sense, Bush was offering himself as the triangulation of Clinton: the charming, raffish boomer who was "touched by faith," rose above his own appetites and became a better man (as he implies Clinton never did). "At times, we lost our way," Bush said, "but we are coming home" — an "Amazing Grace" message aimed at every American who ever survived a bad patch along the road. That's one way to get a majority, and it's the kind of message Clinton transmitted in the years before Monica, when folks thought he had reformed. But Bush adds to it a more overtly religious tone, a dimension of frank born-again spirituality. "I believe... in forgiveness because I have needed it," Bush said.

If the virtual rematch of 1992 creates problems for Bush by casting him as a redeeming dauphin, it makes even more trouble for Gore. As he prepares for the convention that may well determine his political fate, the rematch casts him back into the Clinton shadow he's been trying so hard to escape. Gore's advisers believe the Clinton-Poppy exchange worked to their advantage as it was one of the few off-message moments of the GOP convention. But they are worried about the next time Clinton free-lances, and the time after that.

The President is so caught up in the race for his succession that he's taken to handicapping it. (His latest point spread: Gore by 4.) He spends more time kibitzing in Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate race, but can't help passing tactical advice to Gore and his campaign chairman, Bill Daley, who left Clinton's Cabinet in July. The President is said to be itching to get out and campaign for his vice president, but Gore remains wary. Why would Gore want to keep down someone who can raise buckets of cash and fire up the Democratic base? Because every time Clinton goes to bat for him, Gore looks like the bat boy. When Clinton and Gore spoke at a Hollywood fund-raiser thrown by David Geffen last April, the President's charisma made Gore seem even paler than he was. So Clinton scaled back to brief introductions at a New York gala nine days later — but Gore still looked like second fiddle.

He can't let that happen next week at his convention in Los Angeles, which is why planning for the event has become a delicate dance of conflicting egos and agendas — Al's, Bill's and Hillary's. Clinton wanted to speak Tuesday night (and, some say, turn the convention into a celebration of himself), but Gore was determined to get both Clintons out of the way Monday night and have the rest of the week to himself. Nobody in Gore's camp was eager to break this news to Clinton, sources tell TIME, so a longtime friend was dispatched to carry the painful message. Clinton was worried about being drowned out by Monday Night Football; the friend told him that if he delivered the speech at halftime or after the game, he'd get a bigger audience on Monday than he would on Tuesday. Clinton reluctantly agreed. Next, Gore advisers raised the idea of having Gore appear onstage after Clinton's speech for a pass-the-torch moment. Clinton liked the notion; Gore did not. At week's end the plan was to have Clinton pass the torch to Gore in Michigan on the day after Clinton's speech.

Hillary Clinton poses another set of problems for Gore. There has been tension between the two since the 1992 campaign, when Gore demanded a much more prominent role than running mates usually get. Hillary and Susan Thomases, her aide at the time, tried and failed to turn his volume down. A year later, Al and Hillary vied for the health-care-reform portfolio (Hillary prevailed, infamously). And last summer, when Gore thought he was finally going to get some unencumbered running room, Hillary decided to make her bid for the Senate in New York and drew campaign cash and press attention away from him.

Their rivalry continues today. Naturally enough, Hillary wants to use the convention to promote her candidacy (her opponent, Rick Lazio, didn't get a speaking slot in Philadelphia). But the First Lady is a walking reminder of things Gore wants voters to forget, so his camp saw to it that her role would be limited to introducing her husband Monday night. And then dueling fund-raisers became a problem. The Democratic National Committee has been planning a concert gala after Gore's acceptance speech next Thursday. With Barbra Streisand drawing donors to the 6,800-seat Shrine Auditorium, the event could raise $5 million in hard-money contributions the campaign desperately needs to mount its air attack against Bush.

Deep into their planning, DNC officials were appalled to learn that Hillary's campaign was organizing a similar event (Cher, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross). When Gore strategists heard of the bash, they asked that it be kept small so as not to siphon dollars from the nominee. "They're in a total swivet," a Hillary operative told TIME. "Every dollar" that Hillary raises, "they resent."

Gore may want to keep the Clintons at arm's length in L.A., but he won't be distancing himself from the Clinton record. America's historic economic expansion and vastly improved social indicators are blue-chip arguments for a Gore presidency — and they refute Bush's version of the recent past. In other words, the rematch isn't going away. Just to keep the rivalry humming, Gore plans to send Clinton to campaign in battleground states in the fall. Poppy Bush will be spending a dozen or so days on the stump as well. The two old warriors will be criss-crossing the country once more, whipping up their voters and taking the occasional shot at each other. Seems like old times.