- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2000

PHILADELPHIA Democrats probing for weaknesses to exploit at the Republican National Convention are frustrated by the lack of dissension, missteps and red-meat rhetoric they had hoped would undermine the GOP.

"Do the Gore campaign and the Democrats have anything that's really big that they can grab ahold of right now and use to keep the convention from getting traction?" said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. "I don't think so. I think it's hard."

With Republicans stubbornly refusing to squabble among themselves over abortion, their platform or George W. Bush's selection of Richard B. Cheney as his running mate Democrats have been reduced to implying that Arizona Sen. John McCain still harbors some lingering animosity toward Mr. Bush.

"McCain continues to have reservations about the size of George W. Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut," proclaimed a Gore news release with the headline: "More straight talk from John McCain."

But Mr. McCain insisted during his "Straight Talk Express" bus ride to the GOP convention over the weekend that his support for Mr. Bush is unwavering. Asked by The Washington Times if he is bitter about his loss to the Texas governor in the primaries, Mr. McCain said: "Not at all. There is no anger."

Democrats have also tried to make an issue of the media attention garnered by Mr. McCain, arguing that he is stealing the spotlight from the GOP nominee. Pressed by several journalists to admit that his ballyhooed bus ride into Philadelphia was really a sly rebuke of Mr. Bush, the Arizona maverick steadfastly refused to take the bait.

"This was not intended to hurt his feelings," Mr. McCain insisted. But "rather to extol the virtues of Governor Bush."

The final blow to Democratic hopes for a McCain-Bush rift came yesterday afternoon when Mr. McCain formally relinquished his delegates to Mr. Bush. By publicly urging his followers to support the nominee, Mr. McCain sought to silence the naysayers once and for all.

Democrats promptly redoubled their efforts to sow doubts about the wisdom of placing Mr. Cheney on the GOP ticket. Vice President Al Gore's campaign even likened the Cheney pick to President Bush's selection of Dan Quayle as his running mate in 1988, a move widely viewed as a major political blunder.

"Bush picks the wrong guy sound familiar?" blared another Gore campaign news release.

"My view is this Cheney thing ain't going all that swimmingly for [Mr. Bush] right now," said Democratic strategist James Carville. "I don't think it's a disaster, but I don't think he should be real happy with it."

Gore officials and surrogates are trying to tag Mr. Cheney as a right-wing extremist because of his congressional voting record.

"Dick Cheney will say anything to hide his extreme record and obscure the truth behind George W. Bush's rhetoric," Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway said yesterday.

"From his opposition to Head Start to his support for a massive tax cut for the rich, Cheney had the wrong priorities in Congress," Mr. Hattaway added. "Now, he and Bush want to take the country backward with the same kind of bad priorities."

But other Gore supporters acknowledge Mr. Cheney's conservative votes on such issues as abortion and gun control are solidifying core Republicans at a time when the Democratic base is far from united.

While the National Rifle Association and the Christian Coalition have refused to stray from the Bush reservation, environmentalists and labor unions are ambivalent about supporting Mr. Gore.

"One of the things about Cheney's voting record is that it's ginning up the Democratic base," Mr. Carrick said. "I can tell that anecdotally. From people who had absolutely no reason to be excited to Democratic activists, they're all stirred up about the voting record now.

"But on the other hand, it may be ginning up the Republican base," he added. "They feel that underneath his nice rhetoric and moderate image, Bush is a true-believer conservative.

"So I think it's ginning up both bases, but I don't think it's influencing anybody in the middle," Mr. Carrick concluded.

Yet a Time/CNN poll released over the weekend revealed that while only 18 percent of respondents are more likely to vote Republican now that Mr. Cheney is on the ticket, 55 percent called the former defense secretary qualified.

Meanwhile, while Mr. Cheney is reassuring conservatives, Mr. Bush is free to showcase women, minorities and centrist Republicans during the convention in a bid for swing voters.

Determined to avoid a repeat of the media firestorm that erupted after Pat Buchanan's impassioned speech to the GOP convention in 1992, Mr. Bush has nixed the traditional "attack night" against Democrats.

That deprives the Gore campaign of the chance to accuse Mr. Bush of resorting to "the politics of personal destruction." It also puts Republicans in the unusual position of appearing more benign than the Democrats, who feel compelled to attack Mr. Bush on all four nights of their convention next month just to catch the Texas governor in the polls.

The Democrats aren't even waiting until their convention to attack Mr. Bush. Yesterday in Philadelphia, Democratic politicians from Texas arrived on a bus and held a press conference criticizing Mr. Bush's record as governor.

"We are the Paul Reveres of the 21st century," said state Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth. "We're here to warn America."

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening are among the Democrats on hand this week in Philadelphia to denounce Republicans on a daily basis. The Democrats are also starting an anti-Cheney TV ad campaign.

Some Democrats will cruise the city in a black bus bearing a large photo of a desolate Texas landscape with the caption: "Pictured here are all the working people George W. Bush will fight for."

Still, Democrats acknowledge it is tough to demonize Republicans who are bending over backward to appear nice.

"The Republicans have learned their lesson, particularly from '92," Mr. Carrick said. "They've put all their hard-liners up in the attic like an uncle that you only let downstairs for Thanksgiving dinner because he causes a scene every year.

"They're going way overboard in some regards with all this stuff about having as risk-free a convention as they possibly can," he said. "I don't know that we're going to see a big bump out of this, particularly if it's this low-key, bland pablum and if the Republican message is going to be: 'We're going to be nicer than the Democrats.' "

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