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Candidates' errors litter road to White House

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2000


Let's get ahead of the curve.

No need to wait for the results from the biggest primary election day in history Tuesday to start second-guessing the presidential campaigns. Each of the four major candidates for president already has made enough mistakes to fill several columns.

Take away any of these miscues or shortcomings, and there would be more suspense about the outcome of Tuesday's primaries. As it is, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush appear poised to win the nominations of their parties and head toward the general election.

Bill Bradley would have been better off if the first primary had been in October. He peaked along with the fall colors.

Bradley should not have wasted time and money contesting the Iowa caucuses, which are designed for activists backing the Establishment candidate. He should have stayed in New Hampshire and focused solely on winning the first primary. Then he would have shared center stage with Republican John McCain, who took the gamble and stole the spotlight as the insurgent.

The New Jersey senator should have quickly answered Al Gore's criticisms of his health care plan, and his criticism of Gore's old votes on abortion funding backfired. Even the strongest abortion-rights supporters believe the vice president is on their side.

When Bradley came to Florida last month, he should have sold his health care package instead of criticizing Gov. Jeb Bush's efforts to replace affirmative action. It was no surprise that Bradley opposed the Republican governor, and it did not win him new supporters.

More recently, Bradley should not have wasted time campaigning in the state of Washington in a failed attempt to win a beauty contest that awarded no delegates. He should have camped in New York, where he starred as a basketball player.

If Bradley can't win New York, he can't win anywhere.

Gore should stick closer to the truth.

His old overstatements about his role in creating the Internet became a national joke, and he remains prone to exaggeration. His efforts to portray his childhood as anything other than privileged are misleading.

The vice president's characterization of Bradley's health care proposal is inaccurate. His claims to South Florida retirees that Bradley would have jeopardized their health care were scare tactics of the worst kind.

Gore should be clearer about his priorities. Like Clinton, he lists so many top issues and makes so many promises to so many interest groups it is difficult to find any clear agenda.

Eventually, the vice president also is going to have to become more accessible. Two news conferences since January is not enough, no matter how scripted the candidate.

George W. Bush has made even bigger mistakes that are potentially more damaging.

He should not have spoken at Bob Jones University, the South Carolina school with a history of racial intolerance and anti-Catholic rhetoric. It was not worth the bashing he took for three weeks.

If Bush was determined to speak there, he should have made it immediately clear he did not agree with the school's discriminatory views. Instead he left himself vulnerable to attacks that cost him the Michigan primary and will haunt him in the general election.

Bush should have quickly moved to gag Pat Robertson, whose nasty telephone calls to Michigan voters only created more heartburn for the Bush campaign.

He also should quit misleading voters about his proposed tax cuts. Taxes are not the highest they have been since World War II by most measures, no matter how many times Bush uses the line. His tax cuts would primarily benefit the wealthy, no matter how loudly he claims his focus is on "eliminating the toll booth to the middle class." And his tax-cut proposal does not shore up the Social Security trust fund or pay down the debt as effectively as McCain's, no matter how he manipulates the figures.

Bush also should have watched his own spending. It is stunning to contemplate running through more than $60-million before the biggest primary elections. Now he will have to raise even more money to keep running television ads after he wins the nomination.

While Bush can't control his spending, McCain can't control his quips. His unscripted, always-running commentary is both his biggest strength and his biggest weakness.

McCain called the Vietnamese "gooks," then claimed he was only talking about his captors during the war. He said he would let his 15-year-old daughter decide whether to have an abortion, then said it would be a family decision. Last week, he called the leaders of the Christian right "evil," then backed off the characterization a day later.

It is refreshing to hear a candidate acknowledge a mistake and offer a correction or apology. It is distressing to hear him do it every week.

McCain could use fewer quips and more position papers on the environment, education and other domestic issues. And while his attack on Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell was applauded by independents and Democrats, it drove away even more Republican voters.

As McCain will learn Tuesday, it is impossible to win the Republican nomination for president without Republicans.

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