- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2000

Veteran Republican strategists have plenty of advice for George W. Bush's troubled campaign: Get rid of the script, sharpen your message, broaden your agenda and act like an outsider.

After Mr. Bush's defeat in New Hampshire and new polls showing John McCain beating him in South Carolina and in Michigan, GOP political advisers say Mr. Bush can no longer afford to campaign the way he has. His rhetoric is too vague and imprecise, he has been too cautious on the issues and has not taken enough risks, and he has been far too gentle with his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination.

Even Michigan Gov. John Engler, one of Mr. Bush's closest advisers among the nation's GOP governors, complains that he has had trouble finding the right political rhetoric to respond to Mr. McCain's insurgent, anti-establishment challenge.

"McCain has the reform rhetoric, but not the substance. Bush has the substance, and is not breaking through rhetorically," Mr. Engler told me.

"The first thing I would advise him to do is not overreact in any way to suggest that we are in anything other than a long process to choose a nominee," he said. "But you want to look at how you should sharpen your message, how you can draw distinctions between your candidacy and what the other guy is saying."

So far, despite some midcourse corrections, Mr. Bush has a long way to go. Other party campaign veterans offer even tougher criticism.

"It's been a very shallow pitch so far. There needs to be more beef, more substance in what he's saying," said Frank Donatelli, a longtime GOP consultant who was President Reagan's White House political director.

One of Mr. Donatelli's chief complaints about Mr. Bush's speeches and his performances in the debates is that "he needs to elaborate more, give people more of an explanation about his positions and what his presidency would do."

"He can't just say we need more strict constructionist judges in the courts, he needs to tell people why we need them," he said.

Ohio Republican Chairman Robert Bennett said that Mr. Bush "needs to revise, tinker and tighten" his campaign operation and his delivery. "He has been looking like the establishment candidate and McCain, who has spent 20 years in Washington, is coming off as the anti-establishment candidate."

"I still give him the edge in Ohio, but he's got to start flushing McCain out," Mr. Bennett said.

"The perception I have of him is a tentativeness about being aggressive enough," said James Lake, who was Mr. Reagan's communications director in all of his presidential campaigns.

"The one thing I hope he doesn't do is to rely on the party leaders, the governors, to bail him out. The voters don't care about party leaders," Mr. Lake said.

"Bush has got to demonstrate who he is and speak from the heart with some passion about why he wants to lead. He hasn't done that as well as McCain who reminds me of Reagan in that respect," he said.

Ed Gillespie, a campaign media consultant and a former top press aide to the House GOP leadership, thinks that Mr. Bush has got to get "more aggressive, assertive. You can't be reluctant. He needs to be sharper in his responses" to Mr. McCain's attacks.

Eddie Mahe, a veteran campaign adviser, thinks Mr. Bush up until now has sounded too scripted, while Mr. McCain has sounded spontaneous, real and comfortable with what he is talking about. He is good at extemporaneous political speech. Mr. Bush still seems to have trouble with that.

"But has got to do it himself in his own language. It sounds like memorized stuff. A scripted campaign will no longer work," Mr. Mahe said.

"I know him. He has real ideas and real thoughts, but that's not coming through. He has not come through on the communications front," he said.

Mr. Bush has retooled his campaign since the New Hampshire debacle. He has gotten somewhat more aggressive with Mr. McCain, but is still not effectively challenging him on core party issues and forcing him on the defensive.

Why does Mr. McCain want to deny political groups the freedom to run advocacy ads in the closing months of a campaign? With nearly $2 trillion in tax surpluses rolling in over the coming decade, why is he opposed to cutting tax rates to keep the economic expansion running smoothly?

He has questioned Mr. McCain's credibility on his crusade to rid the country of special interests, but he has not attacked the disturbing Constitutional issues his campaign finance reform bill raises, nor the core of McCain's hypocrisy on the issue. His top advisers, Ken Duberstein, Vin Weber, Warren Rudman, among others, are all big-time special interest lobbyists here.

"He's got great people around him but they are all Washington people. They are the special interests he has been decrying," says GOP consultant Shiela Tate.

Above all, Mr. Bush needs to pepper all of his remarks with the kind of action words that resonate with voters who are hungry for honest, new leadership after more than seven years of scandal and corruption. He can start with the word "change" a word that he rarely uses and elaborate on the top-to-bottom institutional reforms that need to be made in a government riddled with waste and inefficiency.

He needs, in the words of Gov. Engler, to break through rhetorically.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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