Gr-r-r-r-r! Foundering, Bush Changes His Tone

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Gotcha! Let the negative campaign ads begin...

The Buddhist temple ad is here, and just in time for the holiday.

The party behind the candidate who's been promising to run a positive campaign to "change the tone of Washington" and prove that presidential politics "doesn't have to be a system that downgrades people to bring somebody up" has released an TV spot in 17 key states that is, well, an attack on Al Gore's character meant to bring Bush's numbers up.

Maybe campaigns don't count.

Certainly, the ad hits Gore where it hurts. "There's Al Gore, reinventing himself on television. Like I'm not going to notice. Who's he going to be today?" intones the soccer mom in her kitchen, as footage of Gore at the Buddhist temple fund-raiser and at the Democratic convention flickers on the countertop TV. Then the kicker, the always-reliable Internet joke. Footage of Gore on CNN. Woman: "Yeah, and I invented the remote control, too." Onscreen: ""

It's a diminishing ad, meant to remind us of all the times Gore made our skin crawl before that Joe Lieberman guy came along and cleansed the veep of his sins. Remind us of Philadelphia, when Bush made returning "honor and decency to the White House" sound like a Republican idea. It's undeniably a personal, negative ad. And Bush, who approved the ad Tuesday, wouldn't risk the backlash unless he had to.

The week before the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the campaign, George W. Bush has lost his vision and his outsider advantage. He can talk about education, he can figure out his health care plan, he can even set a debate schedule, but to kick out the incumbent in prosperous times, he still has to give swing voters a reason to take away Gore's spare keys to the Oval Office and give them to Bush. And if swing voters think the veep is a pretty good guy, Bush is going back to Texas.

So Bush ditched his halo. And as the ad hit the airwaves, that blasted Lieberman was there: "I'm sorry to say that Governor Bush's promise to change the tone of American politics has run into the reality of a troubled Bush-Cheney campaign," he said. "Because these new attack ads break his promise not to launch personal attacks in this campaign and they drag us back to the worst politics of the past. It seems to me today that Governor Bush has sadly changed his tune about changing the tone." And that about sums up the backlash argument. (Smartly, the DNC immediately shelved its own ad attacking Bush's Texas record.)

Bush sees the ad as "a humorous way of making an important point... that there is a gaping credibility gap between what Vice President Gore says and what Vice President Gore does," said spokeswoman Karen Hughes.

And of course, it might work. Gore's turnaround from coffeemaker-in-chief to throaty campaign-finance reform advocate is a major spiritual inconsistency that the veep apparently thinks the McCain name excuses him from explaining fully. The Internet bit, even though it was as much stumblebum Gore as slippery Gore, is pure gold. And negative campaigning works, which is why Gore would be slinging mud with a shovel by now if the Joe Lieberman Moral Triangulation Plan wasn't working out so well. And we'll likely see it yet, now that Bush has struck first.

The GOP's timing was no accident. The ad will play in 17 key states and reverberate in the national media all through the long weekend. Voters will see it and have time to think about it. And if the run for November is really just beginning on Labor Day — if the American people really haven't been paying attention — maybe the Al Gore who emerges on Tuesday is a little smaller in the public mind. Maybe the negatives will go a little higher, and that pesky post-convention "bounce" will finally go away. Giving George W. Bush his old vision back.

Or maybe they'll just think Bush is no better than the rest of them.