- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

NEWS ANALYSIS

A new poll shows George W. Bush pulling back ahead of Al Gore, but some in the press are focusing once again on Mr. Bush's rhetorical bloopers and depicting his campaign as going on the defensive.

Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said "they might want first to look at some video footage" of the boat tour Mr. Gore "just finished and see the gaffes he made on the way down the Mississippi River."

But it is Mr. Bush's linguistic errors and halting attempts at budget talk that much of the press has focused on.

Bush partisans say the press is playing into the Gore campaign line that the Texas governor is not smart enough to be president.

A Los Angeles Times story yesterday said Mr. Bush "seriously taxed his rhetorical abilities" this week, using "billion" when he meant "trillion" and vowing not to let terrorists hold America's allies "hostile," when he meant "hostage."

The Washington Post said Mr. Bush "suddenly finds himself on the defensive, behind in the polls and struggling to fend off attacks on his policies." The Post story also noted that Mr. Bush "seems to be experiencing a bout of the bloopers that beset him during the primaries."

The Associated Press said "the Republican nominee had a ragged few days of campaigning" and "it's all put George W. Bush on the defensive."

But a three-day Portrait of America tracking poll of 2,250 likely voters, completed Tuesday, shows Mr. Bush in the lead again, 43 percent to 41 percent. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.

Mr. Bush has tripped over his tongue before, but so have Mr. Gore and his mentor, President Clinton.

On Friday, Mr. Gore's own weariness appeared to catch up with him when, after only 2 and 1/2 hours sleep, he befuddled a high school band in Lansing, Mich., by asking if they could play a Tennessee mountain song called "Rocky" or the Wisconsin football fighting song.

In 1995, Mr. Clinton made a more politically substantive slip in telling major donors that maybe he had raised taxes too much. In a speech in Houston, Texas, he said: "Probably there are people in this room still mad at me at that budget because you think I raised your taxes too much. It might surprise you to know that I think I raised them too much, too." He later excused himself by citing fatigue.

Whether Mr. Bush's verbal missteps will influence voters any more than misstatements by Mr. Clinton or Mr. Gore remains to be seen.

Independent pollster John Zogby doubts the importance of such gaffes. "I don't think any of that stuff matters," he said. "There is a difference between millions and billions, but that's not critical."

"It would matter only if it sets in the way it did with Dan Quayle in 1988," said former Reagan and Bush presidential campaign adviser David A. Keene. "I think it's too late for that. A candidate has to be defined that way from the beginning. George W. wasn't."

In Mr. Zogby's view, "vocabulary doesn't count. Harry Truman used to mispronounce words all the time."

A Bush adviser said privately that some in the press have been waiting to pounce on the Texas governor and felt they could do it after a spate of weekend polls showed Mr. Gore pulling ahead.

Mr. Bush eschewed advice by some supporters that he not fall into the trap of getting too detailed about his proposals. But with Mr. Gore the master of policy detail getting as much as a 17-percent bounce from the Democratic convention in some weekend polls, Mr. Bush decided to defend his $1.3 trillion, 10-year tax-cut proposal, which is more than twice the amount Mr. Gore has proposed.

Mr. Bush tried to lay out the details at a Peoria, Ill., fund-raiser and then tried to defend it to reporters traveling on his campaign plane.

The press appears to be siding with the Gore camp's claim that Bush tax cuts would eat up the anticipated budget surpluses, leaving nothing for vital spending and federal debt reduction. Polls are cited showing most voters aren't eager for tax cuts. But Congressional Budget Office figures show Bush tax cuts and spending proposals and debt payoff plans are reasonable.

A National Taxpayers Union study also shows that Mr. Gore's spending proposals outstrip budget surpluses for 10 years something the press doesn't emphasize.

Mr. Bush has said he needs "to do a better job" to defend his tax cut proposal against criticism that it is too costly and favors the wealthy. The Bush campaign was preparing a counteroffensive for today to criticize Mr. Gore's more modest $500 billion, 10-year tax-cut plan.

Both campaigns are working to fine-tune their messages.

The Republican National Committee, with the knowledge of the Bush campaign, had planned this week to air a biting ad questioning Mr. Gore's veracity. But the spot was pulled at the last minute yesterday after senior Republicans including Bush advisers raised objections.

The spot, which had been sent to dozens of TV stations in several states, featured a 1994 Gore interview in which the vice president said neither he nor Mr. Clinton had lied in their public careers.

Critics inside the GOP's highest ranks called the interview outdated and questioned whether such a critical ad should run in the midst of Mr. Gore's convention bounce. They also feared it could backfire if centrist and independent voters thought Republicans were raising the Monica Lewinsky case again.

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