As they circled around each other last week on the stage's red plush carpeting, the body language of both candidates told voters everything they needed to know about the way each man will pose and paint himself through the final two-week act of this election. Here, laid bare, was the choice: Who do you want to tame Washington for the next four years? The lover or the fighter?
With the polls creaking in Bush's favor, Gore has returned as the hard-charging populist, a pose that helped revive his campaign after the Democratic convention. "He knew he'd gone too far in the second debate, and he had to repair the damage," says a top Gore adviser of the matchup, where the veep appeared too docile. "And he'd had it with this idea there were no differences and this was about who's a nice guy. He wanted to show that there were differences, and they were serious." Without someone in the public arena slugging and scratching for them, Gore insists, Americans will be overtaken by the HMOs, prescription-drug companies and big oil. "You've got a lot at stake in this election," he boomed at a rally in Flint, Mich., to a screaming crowd of several thousand. "I ask for your support so I can fight for you, so I can fight for your families, so I can fight for your future." The evil that Gore will fight hardest against in the final weeks? George Bush's Social Security and tax-cut plans.
For Bush, the bogeymen are just as scary a large and intrusive federal government, a sickly military and moral collapse. But rather than wrestle these problems to the ground as Gore does, the Texas governor proposes to hug them into submission. In La Crosse, Wis., last Wednesday he was in the groove, having long ago replaced the snarly candidate of the South Carolina primaries who had trouble hiding the coiled tensions within. Displayed instead was a sunny persona, a peaceful, easy feelin', complete with dropped g's, that crowds and cameras were soaking up. Promising to end "finger pointin' and partisan bickering" the way Bush believes he has in Texas, the candidate weaved his message of unity throughout. "If you get to decidin' who's the right people and the wrong people, you're pittin' people against each other," he said of Gore's tax plan. "We need a uniter, not a divider."
Gore's campaign believes amping up the feisty message is the perfect way to close the deal with swing voters. It has polled Gore's "fight for you" phrasing against Bush's "uniter not divider" theme and claims that people are savvy enough to know that Love and Happiness will never be a legislative anthem. "People see Washington as a place of powerful interests, where they need a president who takes their side and stands up and fights for them," says Tad Devine, a chief Gore strategist. He points as evidence to a St. Louis, Mo., debate-watching focus group of 50 people, assembled by the Gore camp. They arrived with the lion's share of them, 41 percent, undecided. They left with 53 percent of the room for the vice president. The Gore staff felt so good about its candidate's performance in the debate that it wants to pour precious advertising dollars into rebroadcasting it on cable channels in battleground states.
Austin aides have their focus groups too, and they claim the vice president's aggressiveness only rankles, reminding voters of the ugly noises from the past four or five years in Washington, the showdowns and shutdowns. The less partisan voters, says the campaign, like Bush's happy soundings of cooperation. "Among swing voters, they don't care about the party labels," says Bush's polling analyst Matthew Dowd. "They want things solved."
Strangely, Gore has not been able to parry this charge that Washington under the Clinton-Gore years has become a do-nothing bickerfest, in large part because he refuses to highlight the administration's litany of achievements. Democrats, both inside and outside campaign circles, say they are perplexed by a move that should be as natural as King Arthur taking Excalibur from the stone. "I mean, can we let it soak in that we've had the best economy in the history of the world for two minutes before having to say we're not satisfied?" says one Democratic strategist, sighing. By late last week it was an exasperated Clinton, not Gore, who finally touted the past eight years. "One thing I admire about our Republican friends is that the evidence has no impact on them," he gibed. "The country is so much better off [with] our economic policy, our education policy, our environmental policy, our health-care policy, our welfare policy, our crime policy."
Even when pressed last Friday morning on the "Today" show about why he wasn't talking about his executive record, Gore didn't take the gimme moment in front of 6 million viewers about welfare reform, a balanced budget, free-trade agreements, low crime rates and newly protected wilderness areas. "This race is about the future," he stammered instead. "President Clinton is my friend... But I'm not satisfied. I'm running on who I am and on my own." Gore denies friction with his White House partner, and aides insist they're not worried about being tied to the Clinton scandals, but the vice president's chilly feelings for Clinton are palpable. The same man who negotiated for weekly lunches with the President when he was being invited on the ticket now makes an effort to insist the two aren't conferring.
But there are political motivations too, argue Gore advisers. "Every time you mention the party, take credit or talk about the past, you lose swing voters," says a Gore partisan of how Gore's consultants answer his concerns. "They say that stuff only appeals to the base." But Gore could use a little help there. Unlike Bush, who has 88 percent support from Republicans, Gore currently has only 83 percent of Democrats, according to a TIME/CNN poll.
The refusal to look back also robs Gore of another key argument, which is that Washington is a place where fisticuffs take over when footwork fails, and it is the most trenchant fighters who win the day. In this world, Gore took on his party, President and opposition and often won. Fans cite a host of defeats of old-style liberalism, starting with his successful fight in 1993 to make Clinton focus on debt reduction rather than new spending. He later pushed for welfare reform and NAFTA, both of which had more GOP than Democratic backing.
But perhaps his most brilliant and lethal display was in 1995, when Gore and Clinton adviser Dick Morris pushed Clinton to break with the Democrats to agree to a balanced budget. Gore then doubled back on Morris, who wanted Clinton to sign on to a budget bill that would have cut Medicare and other popular programs. Arguing against a deal, Gore predicted the government shutdown and convinced Clinton it would play into his hands. Gore, who wrote his college thesis about how the power of television gives the President an edge over Congress, even coached the President on exploiting the media. "Gore was the only one in the White House who saw all the way through to the endgame and got everything right," says a former Clinton aide. "Side with the Republicans, even if the Democrats feel betrayed. Then fillet the Republicans and save the Democrats." Complains a Democrat close to the campaign: "He needs to talk about this stuff. You can't just say you're a fighter. You have to say you're a fighter and a winner."
Bush is not so shy about selling his record of governing in Texas, which he boasts has been successful because of political relationships with Republicans and Democrats that he cultivated before he was even elected. While running against former Democratic governor Ann Richards in 1994, Bush paid a secret visit to Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, a Democrat and the most powerful person in Texas politics. "You may not think I'm going to win," Bush told him, "but when I do, I want to work with you." Even when Bush's prediction came to pass, the famously crusty Bullock had a series of smackdowns with the governor. "He was a man of great profanity and chewed his ass out," remembers Republican State Senator David Sibley of a phone call between the two men to discuss litigation reform. By the end of that same evening, Bush was on the phone again offering a compromise. "Bullock got back on and said, 'You're the greatest ever,'" says Sibley. Though the two later clashed on taxes and other issues, Bush kept at the courtship. "He gets out of his seat and gets it done," says Austin political consultant Bill Miller. "He doesn't wait for people to come to him." By the time of his reelection race in 1998, Bush had Bullock's endorsement, and on his deathbed, the old adversary asked his rival to deliver the eulogy at his funeral.
But the atmosphere in Texas is a lot different from Washington, where the Bush model of schmoozing with steaks at the mansion and unannounced visits to a member's legislative office will only go so far. Democrats in Texas are far more conservative than many of their Washington counterparts, and the capital's political terrain has hidden minefields that go back for decades. "The idea of charming the Democrat leadership is silly; the whole notion of a honeymoon period is quaint," says a former House Democratic staff member. "What the Democratic leadership learned in '95, '96 and '97 about how to be in the minority forcing votes, making the majority show its hand, blocking when necessary is impressive. And they're not going to forget those lessons, no matter who has the narrow majority in next year." Bush might also run into problems from his own party, which has contributed just as much to the partisan atmosphere. Conservative Republicans have opted to keep their mouth shut during the election to help Bush win, but they won't hush up forever.
The week concluded with both candidates moving from the serious stage of the debates to the less staid platforms. Gore chatted with Rosie and Regis; Bush sat down with Letterman; and both of them pilloried themselves on "Saturday Night Live" and at a New York City gala. But the next handful of days will be short on yuks as the ground and air onslaught intensifies and the two candidates intensify their campaigning. "I tell you this," says Democratic consultant and Gore partisan Paul Begala, assessing the impact on voters: "no one will wake up Nov. 8 and not know what they were getting."
With reporting by James Carney and Eric Pooley with Bush, Andrew Goldstein with Gore, and Karen Tumulty/Washington