In Playing Rough, Bush Runs a Big Risk

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Turning the Labor Day corner, George W. Bush is in trouble.

He will lose in November unless he:

1) Masters policy and convincingly engages Al Gore not only on the substance of their differences on issues — he needs to emphasize for example the recklessness of the $161 billion pie-in-the-sky Gore promised in Los Angeles — but also on philosophical ground; or

2) Conjures up the equivalent of several Willie Hortons and goes ruthlessly negative, as his father did in 1988 against Michael Dukakis.

My guess is that Bush will try to work both options (riding his high horse while he takes the low road, so to speak), but will find, as the weeks pass, that Option 1 does not entirely work — close-quarters policy wonking is not the kind of thing that W.'s good at. Then he will put his money on Option 2 — slashing negatives.

In a couple of dead August vacation weeks, the race has reconfigured itself, like a kaleidoscope tumbling into a new pattern.

Coming out of the Republican convention, Bush had the race won on style, personality and guy points. But Gore brilliantly used Los Angeles (the family, Karenna's sweet speech, bouncy Tipper, and above all The Kiss) to neutralize the Something's-Wrong-With-Gore problem. W.'s loose Texas normality and gentleman's C in gravitas is no longer sufficient. Gore isn't prohibitively weird anymore to independents, but seems, on the contrary, to be likeable, presentable, acceptable. Los Angeles all but destroyed Bush's atmospheric advantage.

Bush will either have to fight Gore on issues — and so far, Gore seems to be working better issues — or he will have to find a way to get effectively ugly.

The ad Bush tried a couple days ago — the TV set on the counter, Gore's image, the Buddhist temple, the nonsense about inventing the Internet, an annoyingly sarcastic woman's voiceover saying, there's dumb old Al reinventing himself again (yeah, right, like we wouldn't notice) — is a lame, counterproductive effort, foolishly half-hearted and barbless.

Labor Day is late in the season for George W. Bush to be fumbling political fundamentals he supposedly learned long ago from Lee Atwater.

Like these: A sarcastic feint won't do. The vein you seek is called the jugular. If you draw your sword, you must use it to kill. There's nothing more embarrassing to watch than incompetent nastiness.

But going seriously negative will be an enormous gamble. Where are the permissible Willie Hortons — issues inflammatory enough to hurt Gore but guaranteed not to backfire?

So much against Gore is old stuff, already discounted in voters' minds — the association with Clinton, the Buddhist temple, all the "Love Story"/Love Canal/Internet business. Can Bush find something fresh?

If Bush gets viciously personal, Gore will be able to mount a devastating counterattack. Edit in your mind a quick-cut television ad showing George W. Bush groping for the names of heads of state, garbling sentences, saying "hostile" when he means "hostage" — a procession of he's-not-ready moments that would reinforce the most damaging rap against Bush (he's not smart enough) and emphasize Al Gore's strength (he is).

It's stupid to underestimate George W. Bush. He may throw interesting punches during the debates, getting off the sort of sound bites that can turn a campaign around. He may, indeed, proceed to build a persuasive case not only that he is the better man but also that the Republican approach (on taxes, on health care, on education, and so on) makes more sense, philosophically and morally. The kaleidoscope may tumble into yet another design.

But if Bush finds the case for substance isn't working, he may do what his father did in 1988 — play rough. And I am not sure Americans are in the mood for that this time. It might merely confirm their suspicions.