- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush effectively finished off their party rivals last night as the 2000 campaign quickly turned into a general-election battle that both sides said could be the nastiest in years.
"The general election begins tonight," said Charlie Black, a Bush campaign adviser.
"The Democratic primary process is over. We're now in a general election mode," said Democratic campaign consultant Alan Secrest.
As expected, Mr. Gore clinched the Democratic nomination months in advance by trouncing his only rival, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. Also as expected, Mr. Bush won most of last night's Republican contests, moving him within easy reach of the remaining delegates needed to capture the GOP's nomination, perhaps as early as next week, and thus ending Arizona Sen. John McCain's insurgent candidacy.
While Mr. Gore still has several dozen party primaries ahead of him between now and June 6, his sweep of yesterday's 16 Democratic contests was the end of the road for Mr. Bradley's challenge. He is reportedly ready to withdraw tomorrow and endorse Mr. Gore.
Mr. Bush, who went into yesterday's 13 Republican contests with 245 delegates, may emerge today with somewhere between 600 and 700 delegates. By next Tuesday, he could collect another 341 delegates in six Southern states and nearly 100 more in three Western states, giving him the 1,034 delegates required to win the GOP's nomination. He leads in all these states.
Republican Party officials and Bush campaign advisers said yesterday they were now gearing up for a campaign battle with Mr. Gore that they said would probably be one of the meanest presidential races in years.
"Gore and the left wing of his party will immediately start attacking Bush. You can expect Al Gore to run the most negative campaign in history. And that will start tonight," said Haley Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman.
Mr. Gore has been aiming more of his campaign rhetoric at Mr. Bush in the past several days, charging that he was a candidate of the "special interests" and attacking him for not having proposed a health care plan.
Mr. Bush, in turn, has also begun making his long-expected Democratic foe the focus of his campaign rhetoric, raising questions about the Clinton-Gore campaign-finance scandals and its policies on defense, education and taxes.
If there was any doubt about the shift to a general-election campaign, Mr. Bush's advisers immediately began last night to portray Mr. Gore as a far-left liberal who was out of step with the nation's political-mainstream voters.
"Gore is way to the left. Bush is right in the center of the Republican Party and right in the political mainstream of the American people," said Mr. Barbour, who has been advising Mr. Bush.
Gore advisers were also sending signals to their party's political base that the coming campaign against Mr. Bush would be as rough as any in recent memory and that it was starting now.
Mr. Gore, in his victory speech last night, attacked Mr. Bush and his party for "smear telephone calls from the extremist right wing."
Mr. Bush, at a news conference earlier yesterday, said that "America must not give Clinton-Gore a third term."
"One of the things I'll do during the course of the campaign is to remind people of what's gone on in the administration for the last seven years," he said.
Republican officials said yesterday that one of Mr. Bush's first priorities now will be to unite his party after a divisive political slugfest in which Mr. McCain questioned Mr. Bush's trustworthiness, compared him to President Clinton and accused him of harboring anti-Catholic sentiments.
Mr. Barbour said he thought that Mr. Bush's task would not be as difficult as it seems. "The friction and rancor of the campaign has been primarily about tactics and the TV ads. There were very little significant differences on policies and issues between them."
For the Republicans, an early ending to their primary battles will give Mr. Bush needed time to regroup, replenish his depleted war chest and plot his campaign strategy.
His success in nailing down the nomination five months before the national convention in August was due as much to his campaign skills as it was to the party's establishment, which coalesced around him early and made him the nearly prohibitive choice for the GOP's nomination.
Mr. McCain, who will huddle with his campaign advisers today, must decide what role he will play in the coming campaign. He has repeatedly denied that he would run as an independent candidate or would accept an offer to be Mr. Bush's running mate.
Meantime, Mr. Gore, who has accepted federal spending limits, may face serious campaign-finance problems for the next several months because he has spent most of his primary funds and must await the federal funding he will get for the general election.
Mr. Bush, who is not accepting federal funds during the nomination stage and thus is under no spending limits, has begun a new round of fund-raising appeals.

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