- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2000


Despite complaints by Al Gore's campaign and some in the press about "negative campaigning," George W. Bush continues to focus on the vice president's character, trustworthiness and credibility the central theme of the Texas governor's strategy from the beginning.
Lately, critics, including some Republicans, have accused Mr. Bush of being off message and on the defensive.
At the same time, the presidential campaign has entered the post-Labor Day phase when the undecided voters and the press are watching carefully to see if Mr. Bush has the grit to stick with his game plan and to resist pressure from critics.
Mr. Bush appears to be staying the course. By pushing to debate Mr. Gore on popular interview shows and implying that Mr. Gore is redefining his own promises the way President Clinton attempted to redefine ordinary English verbs to suit his purpose, for example, Mr. Bush has forced Mr. Gore to stray from his own themes.
"The last few days have been good for Bush," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "The whole debate controversy got the Gore campaign off message. He had to spend more time talking about the debate stuff, and it knocked him off stride.
"This allowed Bush to come out strong, as he did yesterday, with his prescription-drug proposal," Mr. Goeas said. "And both these things happened when people were starting to come off the Labor Day holiday and refocus on the elections. So, from a strategic standpoint, it was a good move and well executed."
With Mr. Bush's approval, the Republican National Committee continues to air TV ads that prod once again at the character issue by mocking Mr. Gore's appearance at an illegal fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple during the 1996 presidential election campaign.
While some polls seem to show that Mr. Gore may have decoupled himself from the president and the sex scandals if not the fund-raising scandals of the Clinton-Gore administration, the Bush campaign continues to regard the linkage of those issues with Mr. Gore as legitimate.
Mr. Bush, therefore, is not apologizing for the ads or even quietly suggesting to the RNC that it take the ads off the air, despite complaints from Gore running mate Joseph I. Lieberman.
The Democratic senator from Connecticut not only claimed Mr. Gore "didn't do anything that was contrary to any law at the Buddhist temple" but also complained that he was "disappointed that Governor Bush continues to bring matters like this up continues to make references to President Clinton."
But at least one Democrat said that is both legitimate and smart.
"The most important characteristic people want in a president is trustworthiness," said Brian Lunde, a former Democratic National Committee executive director who has become an admirer of the Republican presidential candidate. "It's an eternal issue, and in this case, it is wise to stay on it."
Mr. Lunde argued that if voters trusted Mr. Gore completely, the race would have been over a long time ago. "They clearly have a problem trusting Gore, so if you were a Republican, why wouldn't you talk about what troubles the voters?"
The latest Bush character offensive began on Sunday when he challenged Mr. Gore to debate on CNN's "Larry King Live" and NBC's "Meet the Press." Mr. Gore immediately rejected the challenge.
The Bush campaign used that as an opportunity to revisit yet again the character-trust-credibility theme that Mr. Bush had been using regularly from the first day of his presidential quest in June 1999. The not-so-subtle implication is that when it comes to character and credibility, not only does Mr. Clinton have neither, but Mr. Gore has defended the president on both counts.
Mr. Bush then ratcheted up the offensive, accusing Mr. Gore of providing an "interesting example of Washington double-speak." He noted that Mr. Gore had said he would debate Mr. Bush any place, any time, anywhere. "But now, all of a sudden, the words about 'any time, anywhere' don't mean anything," Mr. Bush said.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer also drove home the point, saying that if Mr. Gore "refuses to appear, his credibility will be on the line… . After eight years of word parsing from the White House, Al Gore should not fudge on what the definition of the word 'accept' is."
Only rarely has Mr. Bush missed an opportunity to raise, if indirectly, the character issue and its Gore-Clinton link. In his first campaign speeches in June of last year, he wowed his audiences by saying: "When we put our hand on the Bible, we swear to uphold not only the laws but the dignity of the office to which we have been elected. It is a pledge I made to the voters of Texas and a pledge that I have upheld, so help me God."
Again this week, Mr. Bush said that it is "time to elect people who say what they mean and mean what they say. It's time to get rid of all those words like 'no controlling legal authority.' When we tell you we're going to do something, we're going to do what we say. That's what Americans hunger for."
To partisan eyes, it was time to renew such attacks on the character of Mr. Gore, who they argue has had a long and pleasant ride in the media from the day he announced his campaign on the Monday after the Republican nominating convention all the way through the Democratic convention and beyond.
"The Gore campaign has spent over $30 million [in advertising] slandering Governor Bush, Secretary Cheney and the entire state of Texas," said Clifford D. May, Republican National Committee communications director. "At a certain point, it was time to say to the American people: 'Consider the source. Is Al Gore credible?' "

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