The 'New' Bush Has to Avoid Looking Desperate

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Courting the female vote: George W. Bush visits a maternity ward in Arkansas

A week, as the saying goes, is a long time in politics, and should George W. Bush enter the Oval Office next January, he may well look back on this week as the longest of his campaign. With Al Gore maintaining a significant lead in the polls seven weeks before Election Day, the Texas governor launched what his campaign described as an all-important pitch to middle-class voters on issues such as health, education and Social Security. On a swing through battleground states, he's looking to package a traditional Republican tax cut in terms appealing particularly to women voters, casting the difference between his own policies and those of the vice president as being about taking power from Big Government and putting it in the hands of the individual. While that's a potentially appealing message to undecided middle-class voters, Bush's struggle to make it stick may boil down to a battle of perceptions.

The Bush campaign has to avoid creating an impression of desperation right now, as it once again changes its tenor with Gore clearly in full stride. Indeed, the new focus on issues appealing to middle-class voters is an indicator, in part, that the emphases of previous weeks has failed to rein in Gore's lead. Going negative hasn't helped Bush, and nor have his efforts to make the race about "character." Revising his "non-negotiable" position on debates didn't exactly boost him in the battle to woo undecided voters. Then again, those matters may soon be forgotten if Bush attacks Gore where the veep is considered strongest — policy issues — and gives a creditable performance in the debates. Of course that leaves him pushing against the weight of incumbency in a time of prosperity, but that's an unavoidable reality.

Part of Bush's problem, of course, is that in this era of postmodern election coverage, voters no longer simply listen to what politicians are saying — campaign coverage today is not dissimilar to sports coverage, and voters are invited to consider every nuance in the tactical choices of candidates, in the same way they might watch PGA golfers selecting clubs. And on that level, Bush has been in the rough for a couple of weeks now, unable to stick with a strategy for getting out. Now he's announced that he'll use the issues to play his way back onto the fairway, but U.S. elections are usually won or lost long before the first Tuesday in November. As much as anything else, Bush's battle this week will be to shift the perception that Gore is one easy nine-iron away from the green.