- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

When Al Gore clinched the Democratic nomination this month, a senior Gore adviser told me the worst mistake the vice president could make was to "underestimate George W. Bush."
"We underestimated Bill Bradley. He turned out to be a better candidate than we anticipated. We can't afford to make that mistake again with Bush," this longtime Gore associate told me.
Mr. Bush, he said, was going to be "a much tougher competitor." He is right.
If Tony Coelho, Donna Brazile and Mr. Gore's other strategists didn't know it before, they surely know it now after seeing the results of the Voter.com Battleground survey jointly conducted by Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. It showed Mr. Bush still leading Mr. Gore, as he has since early last year, but by a narrower 47 percent to 44 percent.
But the poll contained a number of other important findings that do not look good for Mr. Gore this November.
For starters, Mr. Bush is drawing half of the Hispanic vote, an astonishing achievement when you consider that two-thirds of this large minority votes Democratic in congressional races. Ronald Reagan holds the all-time record for GOP presidential candidates among Hispanics, having won 37 percent of Hispanic votes in 1984. Mr. Bush could shatter that record.
If Mr. Gore cannot do better than 50 percent of the Hispanic vote, he is in bigger trouble than anyone thinks especially in California.
At the same time, the poll found that Mr. Bush wins the soccer moms, white suburban women, half the Catholics, and leads Mr. Gore among men, exposing the vice president's serious gender-gap problem.
Then there is Al Gore's "liberal" problem. Most voters consider Mr. Bush "somewhat conservative" and Mr. Gore "somewhat liberal." Since most voters are conservative-to-center-right on the political spectrum, that's really bad news for the man who helped promote Hillary Clinton's ill-fated plan to nationalize the health-care industry.
How liberal is he? Mr. Gore likes the excessively high tax rates where they are now, and opposes any cuts. He thinks workers should be satisfied with the 1 percent to 2 percent investment return they get from their Social Security payroll taxes over their working lives, even negative returns in the case of many minority-group members.
So he opposes the plan of Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat, to let us invest 2 percent into safe, higher-yield, IRA-type stock and bond funds that would earn an average of 7 percent a year or more. He even opposes school-choice vouchers to help inner-city parents get their kids out of failing public schools.
As the two presumptive presidential nominees begin their early general-election campaigns, several fundamental developments have emerged that give us some clues about how this presidential election is going to go.
Mr. Bush is going to suffuse his campaign with compassionate symbolism and substantive policy proposals aimed at independent and Democratic swing voters. His advisers say he is going to campaign heavily in suburbia, where this election is going to be decided, but also in barrios and black inner-city neighborhoods.
"He's going to campaign among groups and in places that Republicans usually do not campaign," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told me.
"You are going to see him at Hispanic gatherings and in black churches. He has an inclusive agenda that is going to be popular with minorities, with immigrants and working-class, blue-collar workers, and he is going to break some new political ground for Republicans," said a key Bush adviser. "You think John McCain appeals to independents and Democrats? Wait till you see how Bush is going to campaign."
What is Mr. Bush selling that traditionally Democratic voting blocs would like to buy? Across-the-board tax cuts to boost lower- and middle-class incomes. Tax-free education savings accounts to give hard-pressed parents more choice on where their kids can go to school. Personal investment plans to save Social Security.
These issues got lost in the bitter political combat of the primaries, but there are a lot of data to show their appeal cuts across political lines.
A survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which examines issues of interest to black voters, found that 62 percent of all blacks support the idea of letting workers have their own personal Social Security retirement accounts.
Another survey, by White House pollster Mark Penn, found 62 percent of Hispanic voters want the government "to make it easier for individuals to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts."
Mr. Gore is foursquare against school-choice vouchers. But when the Atlanta Constitution polled its area readership, it found "an astounding 63 percent (of blacks) support a way out" of failing public schools.
So this election is going to be about tax cuts for lower-income people struggling to get into the middle class, turning blue-collar workers into stockholders to create wealth, and helping minority parents get their promising kids into better-performing schools.
Let's see Al Gore and the Washington news media try to spin that into right-wing extremism.

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