Texas Gov. George W. Bush continues to beat Vice President Al Gore on the issue of gun control, prompting President Clinton yesterday to insist that Americans don’t yet know enough specifics about the candidates’ positions.
Political experts are marveling that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has neutralized the Democrat on an issue that Mr. Gore had assumed would play to his advantage.
In poll after poll, Americans prefer the Texas governor over the vice president when it comes to handling the gun issue.
“People don’t know what their respective positions are,” Mr. Clinton said yesterday in response to a question from The Washington Times. “I think [Democrats] lose particularly on how people vote on this issue if it gets muddled in rhetoric. And we win if people know what the specifics are.”
Robert Spitzer, author of “The Politics of Gun Control,” agreed with the president, but credited Mr. Bush with a deft sense of timing and positioning on the gun-control issue.
For example, Mr. Bush announced 48 hours before Sunday’s Million Mom March that Texas would distribute free trigger-safety locks. With little choice but to praise the move, Mr. Clinton resorted to questioning its timing.
Mr. Bush cheerfully replied that he purposely timed the announcement to coincide with the anti-gun march in order to maximize the visibility of the giveaway and have it do the most good. That negated the president’s complaint about timing, Mr. Spitzer concluded.
“It was very smart,” said the professor of political science at State University of New York. “It’s a page out of Clinton’s playbook, you might say.
“That kind of move continues to position him in a way that makes him appealing to voters, as revealed in recent polls,” he added.
In the latest poll, conducted over the weekend, CBS News and the New York Times asked 947 adults: “Regardless of which candidate you prefer for president, who do you agree with more on the issue of gun control?” While 35 percent chose Mr. Gore, 37 percent favored Mr. Bush.
Other recent polls have found similar results.
“We did a poll about six weeks ago in which we asked people which candidate Bush or Gore would better handle ‘the gun issue,’ which is the most neutral wording possible,” said Bill Schneider, CNN’s senior political analyst. “We found Bush coming out slightly ahead of Gore.
“I was so surprised I said, ‘Let’s do that question again and see what happens,’ ” said Mr. Schneider, a polling expert. “So we did it again a few weeks later. And again, it was Bush ahead of Gore.”
Even polls that use the term “gun control,” which Mr. Schneider said should tend to produce results more favorable to Mr. Gore, showed the Texas governor tied with the vice president or slightly ahead.
“These polls are pretty weird, I have to confess,” said Democratic consultant Peter Fenn, a Gore adviser who said he would have expected the vice president to be ahead of Mr. Bush on guns.
“But a lot of folks haven’t figured out what their differences are,” he added. “I mean, when 38 percent of Americans, according to a Pew poll, cannot name a single policy difference between Bush and Gore, you know they have yet to focus.”
Mr. Clinton said poll results are largely dependent on the wording of the questions.
“If you say, ‘Do you want more control or not?’ or ‘Do you want the government to control guns more?’ we’d probably win, but it would be close,” the president said.
“If you say, ‘Do you believe we should close the gun-show loophole, and ban large-capacity ammunition clips from being imported, and require child trigger locks?’ or ‘Should we have people who buy handguns get a photo ID license showing they passed the Brady background check and a safety course?’ then I think we win,” he added.
Mr. Clinton likened guns to cars in the debate over “controls.” He pointed out that the Constitution guarantees Americans the rights to both bear arms and travel without restrictions, but few people object to travel “controls” like speed limits and child safety restraint laws.
“Nobody talks about ‘car control’ in ominous terms,” the president said. “Now, if I come get your car and park it in my back yard, that’s car control. Otherwise, it’s highway safety.”
He hastened to add: “I have not proposed to confiscate the gun or take away the gun, or the right to hunt or sports shoot, or even to have a gun in self-defense for any law-abiding American.”
Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett disagreed with Mr. Clinton’s assertion that Americans don’t know the candidates’ positions on gun control.
“The president is clearly underestimating the American people,” Mr. Bartlett said. “The American people understand that this administration has not made gun prosecutions a priority.”
Mr. Bartlett said that while Americans want “necessary, reasonable” gun controls, Mr. Bush already has demonstrated his support for such measures by pushing for trigger locks and closing the gun-show loophole.
Jim Manown, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, agreed that the Republican emphasis on enforcement of existing gun laws is trumping the Democratic call for additional regulations. Mr. Gore favors registration of handguns and licensing of owners.
“My take is that Governor Bush has always emphasized tough enforcement of existing gun laws and he’s made that part of his platform,” Mr. Manown said. “That’s an issue that resonates with the American people and has majority support.”
Mr. Schneider said “angry white men” are giving Mr. Bush the edge on gun control.
“It’s a big surprise because everyone expected in the aftermath of Columbine over the past year there would be a tidal wave of support for gun control and a big payoff for Al Gore,” he said, referring to the massacre at a Colorado high school. “And in fact, support for gun control did go up a little bit immediately after Columbine. But now it’s back down.
“What you’re finding is a big backlash because the more marches there are, the more Gore and other candidates talk about registering all handguns and licensing handgun owners the more gun owners, particularly, and men, more broadly, become angry,” he concluded.