- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush clinched their presidential nominations last night in a series of Southern contests, ensuring a bare-knuckled November matchup that quickly turned contentious.

Less than a week after vanquishing their chief rivals, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore marched across the South virtually unopposed racking up huge victories in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

Both nominations become formal when the parties conduct conventions in the summer. With suspense drained from the race, turnout was low in every one of the states.

"There's just no interest in this election," said Michael Garner, a Democratic poll worker in Mississippi.

As both candidates secured the delegates totals needed to lead their parties' tickets, Mr. Bush predicted victory in the fall and tried to chain Mr. Gore to President Clinton's scandals.

"He can't distance himself from the president when, for eight years, he's served as cheerleader-in-chief," the Texas governor told supporters, U.S. and Texas flags serving as a colorful backdrop.

Mr. Gore told the Associated Press voters will soon get "a choice between keeping prosperity going or going back to the Bush-Quayle days of gigantic budget deficits and paralyzed democracy."

Mr. Bush dismissed the reference to his father's administration, telling the AP, "I'm looking forward, and [Gore is] looking backward. There is going to be a contrast, and the American people will make the choice: Do they want four more years of Clinton-Gore or do they want a reformer who's gotten positive results?"

Saying Americans have "caught on" to Mr. Gore's political tactics, including questionable fund raising in 1996, Mr. Bush said, "Al Gore can't solve campaign-finance problems when he symbolizes them. He can't talk about rebuilding the military when his administration has dismantled our military."

Exit polls exposed weaknesses of both general election candidates: Gore supporters were not as motivated as Mr. Bush's, while Texas Republicans reported little progress on education under Mr. Bush.

The limited choices didn't impress voters.

"I guess I'm just going to have to vote for Gore, though I'm not really happy about it," said Dennis McHale, a Democrat from New Orleans who was drawn to the polls by a City Council election.

Mr. Gore rattled off a laundry list of issues he would address, including education, health care, Social Security, Medicare and the national debt. And he suggested that Mr. Bush is beholden to his party's right wing, warning that the Texan would give pro-life evangelicals such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell a "working majority" on the Supreme Court.

"This election is a fork in the road. I represent one direction. He represents another," Mr. Gore said.

Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley abandoned their campaigns Thursday, ending an exciting primary season that tested the front-runners and spurred record-breaking voter turnout. Former envoy Alan Keyes remained on Republican ballots, but was not a threat to Mr. Bush.

After voting for himself in Tennessee's primary, Mr. Gore promised "no let up at all" in campaigning, even with the nomination fight settled.

"Whatever energy I might feel like putting into celebrating, I am putting into the general election instead," said Mr. Gore, who like Mr. Bush, is appealing to the political middle and voters outside his own party. "I'm going to reach out to Republicans and independents."

Getting far ahead of himself, the vice president outlined his accomplishments "as president" and quickly corrected the error: "As vice president, I mean."

Mr. Bush dabbled with state business in Austin, Texas, and met with Secret Service officials about their plans to take over for state police who have been protecting him. He had already voted for himself by absentee ballot.

Mr. Bush's parents, former President George Bush and Barbara Bush, voted for their son in Houston. The elder Mr. Bush had trouble expressing his emotions.

"It gets down to family and how lucky we are," the former president said.

Politics runs in both families. Mr. Gore is the son of the late Sen. Albert A. Gore Sr., who once bragged that his son was raised to succeed in presidential politics.

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