- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2000

There is only one critical question that George W. Bush's supporters are asking this week: When is he going to go on the offense?

For nearly a month now, Mr. Bush's backsliding campaign has been put on the defensive, responding to Al Gore's attacks on his tax-cut, health-care and prescription-drug plans, and his Social Security investment reforms. The Gore campaign has been lobbing one offensive missile after another at the Texas governor, who seems to be afraid to return fire.

It is as if Mr. Bush has been playing rope-a-dope in the ring, letting Mr. Gore punch away at his agenda, content to defensively respond to each charge, but unwilling to throw a few punches of his own at Mr. Gore's big-spending, big-government, tax-and-spend agenda.

Predictably, as Mr. Gore and his campaign pounded Mr. Bush's proposals without Mr. Bush really laying a glove on him, the Texas governor's polls have fallen in key battleground states. In Florida, where Mr. Bush had led for months, he was either a little behind or the race was a dead heat. Mr. Gore has surged ahead in Pennsylvania and is now up by 5 points in Missouri. He has tightened the race in Ohio. New Hampshire is neck-and-neck. Michigan is a virtual tie. And in Illinois, the linchpin of the Midwest, Mr. Gore was ahead by 15 points.

A big reason for Mr. Gore's comeback was his convention speech, filled with the kind of leftist, class-warfare, anti-big-business red meat that helps solidify his political base. Swing Democrats came home, and he made new inroads with independents and women.

But another manifestation of Mr. Bush's defensive campaign was discovered in some of the preliminary results that Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus was receiving this week from four battleground states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan). Mr. Sarpolus says Mr. Bush is losing some of his own base.

"We're seeing a 3 percent drop in the Republican voting this fall," Mr. Sarpolus told me. The reason? "Basically, it's a lack of excitement. Bush has some serious problems in re-energizing his base."

It is hard to measure the seriousness of this internal hemorrhaging, but it is largely due to Mr. Bush's failure to mount an aggressive, offensive campaign against Mr. Gore. To many rank-and-file Republicans, Mr. Bush not only seemed to be off-message, he seemed to be going through the motions.

Moreover, he seems to be playing more on Democratic terrain rather than playing up GOP bread-and-butter issues: middle-class tax cuts, curbing wasteful spending, restoring honesty and ethics in the White House, and setting a moral standard for the country.

Incredibly, the one offensive ad he ran last week questioning Mr. Gore's credibility was only meant to be "tongue in cheek," Mr. Bush said. Mr. Gore has been investigated four times for illegal campaign financing abuses, and Mr. Bush is running "tongue in cheek" ads about them?

The lackluster Labor Day weekend kickoff seemed to encapsulate all that was wrong with the Bush campaign up to this point. There was no thematic political structure, no conceptual framework to any of the events.

Mr. Gore, at least, was trying something different in a brutal round-the-clock weekend "workathon," meeting with workers in different venues in different shifts in key states. He was running as the champion of the working class, and his events, speeches and constituencies were all tied to a common theme.

Mr. Gore also showed he was willing to work hard, again throwing the Bush campaign on the defensive, forcing it to come up with schedule data to show Mr. Bush was working just as hard, too.

Labor Day is the traditional general-election opener. It is a time when a candidate ought to appear at a dramatic event to set the theme and message of his candidacy. What he says is as important as where he says it.

Go back to Labor Day in 1980, when Ronald Reagan held his kickoff event near the Statue of Liberty as a rally for working-class immigrants. There he stood, coatless, tieless, his shirt-sleeves rolled up, delivering a speech that appealed to lower- and middle-income workers, a speech that had an optimistic message about expanding opportunity and access to the American dream.

Mr. Reagan knew television news deals in sound bites, and he was ready with one that made every newscast that night. He had been criticized by Jimmy Carter's White House and the news media for saying the economy was in a recession when, they argued, he did not understand the precise definition of a recession. Mr. Reagan, they said, had made another gaffe.

"Well, if it's recession they want, I'll give it to them," Mr. Reagan said in his speech. "A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his." The crowd went wild, every TV newscast ran it, and Mr. Reagan set the tone of his offensive against Mr. Carter. He had punched back.

From there, Mr. Reagan flew to a working-class neighborhood in Detroit. At a Labor Day backyard barbecue, he drank a bottle of beer and talked of tax cuts and getting the economy moving again.

Mr. Bush needed a similarly dramatic event, place and a sound bite that day, but instead he went to a heavily Republican suburb outside Chicago, and his main kickoff speech contained no ringing lines to define his campaign.

Now he is playing catch-up, trying to find his voice and hardly mentioning the big, groundbreaking ideas that make up his reform agenda: personal retirement investment accounts to close the gap between rich and poor, tax cuts to boost the lower-to-middle class into higher income brackets, school choice to help minorities break out of the cycle of poverty.

Mr. Bush had better come up with something quick, because time is running out. Nov. 7 will be here sooner than he thinks. It's time for him to punch back.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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