- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

Anyone wondering whether China will be an issue in this year's presidential race had to look no further than an e-mail, sent Thursday by the Bush for President campaign to national reporters, containing this Jay Leno monologue excerpt:

"Kind of embarrassing moment for [Vice President] Al Gore this past weekend. I guess he and Tipper were at home, you know, in Washington. They sent out for Chinese takeout. The restaurant sent over $2 million in cash."

That the campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush would send a late-night joke about Mr. Gore's fundraising misadventures to hundreds of journalists underscores how vulnerable Republicans believe the vice president is on China.

From issues like trade to nuclear espionage to fund raising at a Buddhist temple, voters are likely to hear a steady drumbeat of rhetoric on China from now till November.

"Under Al Gore's watch, the communist Chinese walked away with more than 50 years' worth of precious nuclear secrets," said Mark Pfeifle, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "This will be a very salient issue for voters in November."

But Marshall Wittman, a political analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, cautioned that China is not an automatic rhetorical victory for Mr. Bush against Mr. Gore.

"China is potentially a large issue in this election, but it depends how effectively Bush makes the case," Mr. Wittman said. "The challenge for Bush is to come up with a comprehensive approach to China that links the national security question with the overall role of America in the world."

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay did just that in a foreign-policy speech last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, when he criticized the administration for an aimless foreign policy rooted in "a conflict of values at home."

"Moral authority at the top has evaporated," the Texas Republican said. "America's greatness is neither our material wealth, nor the size or our territory. Our greatness is the product of what we believe."

Some political observers see the China issue as part of a larger strategy to impugn Mr. Gore's expertise in foreign policy, an area in which eight years as vice president would seem to give him a big advantage over Mr. Bush.

For example, both Mr. Bush and congressional Republican leaders in recent weeks have used soaring gasoline prices as an example of Mr. Gore's supposed lack of clout with America's oil-producing allies in the Middle East.

Mr. Gore has tried to defuse issues like his fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in California simply by saying he made mistakes and won't repeat them. But Mr. Bush has used the administration's perceived coziness with China to emphasize what he says is Mr. Gore's larger ethics problem.

"Al Gore can't solve campaign-finance problems when he symbolizes them," Mr. Bush said last week. "The vice president illegally raised money from monks at a Buddhist temple who took a vow of poverty; the FBI says he may have provided their investigators with 'false testimony,' and now we find he has attempted to use political influence on behalf of a union with the IRS. These aren't mistakes. These are habits. They raise serious ethical questions about whether the vice president is the right person to be our next president."

In addition to the administration's national security failures outlined in the Cox report submitted to Congress last fall, Republicans have been handed a gift of a wedge issue by none other than the White House.

The Cox report named for Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican, who chaired an investigation into China's theft of U.S. nuclear secrets concluded the administration had failed to stop Beijing's espionage efforts.

Trade with China is a problem for Mr. Gore in his own party. The Clinton administration is pushing for legislation that would permanently extend China's "normal trade relations" (NTR) status and permit its entry into the World Trade Organization. But labor unions and many House Democrats oppose the move, fearing it will cost U.S. jobs.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, said that he will not decide how to vote on China's trade status until he sees if an "alternative procedure" for assessing China's performance on human rights can be worked out.

"We are continuing to work on it," Mr. Gephardt said Thursday. "I don't know if it can be done."

House Minority Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan, an outspoken opponent of NTR, has estimated that at least 128 of the House's 211 Democrats will vote against permanent normal trade relations for China.

The Republican National Congressional Committee has used Mr. Bonior's opposition to the trade agreement in a pitch to the high-tech industry, which is a significant source of campaign contributions. The industry is lobbying for passage of the China bill.

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