- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2000

LOS ANGELES Vice President Al Gore this week will have his biggest audience and perhaps best chance ever to set a positive tone for the fall elections and close the likability gap with George W. Bush.
"This is his last, best chance to run a positive campaign," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "He will go negative to the extent he is not successful in redefining his candidacy. The less success, the more the incidence of attacks. In the end, Gore has no choice but to pull the pins on the hand grenades."
Democrats also have little doubt the campaign will turn nasty. "Gore will try to make Texas a backwater, bait Bush, get under his skin until he fires back," said former Democratic National Committee executive director Brian Lunde.
Democratic strategist and pollster Jefrey Pollock says, "No doubt, both sides will get negative because both campaigns understand that negative campaigns still work and believe they need to define the other candidate."
"Gore needs to do that more so than the Bush campaign does, because Gore is more of a known quantity, while Bush is an amalgam of what [independent voters] have seen and heard about him," Mr. Pollock said. "They like him not because they think they know him but because they think they like what they've seen."
Presidential elections are won as much on a candidate's chemistry with voters especially with independent voters who decide the outcome as on issues.
Mr. Gore has the economy, and Mr. Bush has the chemistry.
"Right now, it's an affability contest, and Bush is winning it," Mr. Pollock said.
The affability contest is for the affection of the 23 percent of likely voters who are independents. They will decide the election.
"We're vulnerable on the state of the economy and being overconfident because of our lead in the polls," said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 Republican presidential campaign.
Mr. Gore's vulnerabilities include not only an affability deficit but also ties to President Clinton 62 percent of likely voters disapprove of Mr. Clinton personally, in the latest bipartisan survey by Mr. Goeas and Gore pollster Celinda Lake.
Mr. Bush's potential vulnerabilities include a comparative government-experience deficit.
But the Texas governor leads with nearly every category of the electorate. So Mr. Gore must get voters, especially independents, to like and trust him when he goes for Mr. Bush's throat. "Otherwise, his ability to attack Bush is limited," Mr. Goeas said.
According to a CBS News poll taken after the Republican convention two weeks ago, 42 percent of independents like Mr. Bush and 23 percent don't; 27 percent have a positive view of Mr. Gore while 31 percent have an unfavorable view.
What's more, independents plan to vote for Mr. Bush by a hefty margin of 17 percentage points or more, according to two polls taken after the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia two weeks ago. One was the Lake-Goeas survey. The other was by independent pollster John Zogby.
The poll takers, along with Bush campaign officials, say that lead likely will shrink this week as Mr. Gore gets his convention bounce. But getting a majority of independents is another matter.
Mr. Gore's problem with independents is not just likability. "They also favor the Bush's positions on abortion, taxes and gun control more than they favor Gore's," Mr. Zogby said after taking a poll of 1,008 likely independent voters last month.
If Mr. Gore can't win them over on issues or affability this week, he can be expected to try to neutralize them by doing what he does best: going on the attack against Mr. Bush, as he did in clawing Bill Bradley out of the way in the Democratic primary.
Independents like to think of themselves as voters in the middle, driven by issues and policy and above party and partisanship. If Mr. Gore attacks Mr. Bush and forces him to counterattack, independents may get disgusted and stay home, as they have in some recent elections.
This is precisely why Republicans fear the destructiveness of Mr. Gore's mean side.
"Bush's greatest vulnerability of all is that Gore can so poison the well with negative attacks that a lot of voters in middle who are attracted to the Bush message and approach to government will get fed up and stay home," said Republican campaign adviser Ed Gillespie.
Mr. Goeas says that's why Democrats, who normally want and benefit from a high voter turnout, want a low turnout this time. And why Republicans want the opposite.

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