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The way to win

Here are four things Gov. George W. Bush must do to become the next president.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 6, 2000


PHILADELPHIA -- Jeb Bush calls them "windows of opportunity."

The Florida governor, playing part-time political analyst at last week's Republican convention, said those are the times when a candidate must rise to a particular challenge in a presidential campaign.

He says he saw his older brother, George W. Bush, seize such opportunities when he beat back John McCain after losing the New Hampshire primary and then orchestrated a top-notch convention and delivered a strong acceptance speech. Debates with Vice President Al Gore in the fall will be another important opportunity for GOP candidate Bush, he says.

Between now and those debates, George W. Bush and the people who run his presidential campaign can point to four keys to reaching the White House.

Two involve refining his stand on public policies that affect every voter. A third focuses on improving the electoral calculus by making substantial inroads with a growing minority group.

The last key to the White House is the toughest because it is the most personal and the most difficult to define.

When such challenges present themselves, Jeb Bush said, "It's important to show you have the right stuff."

So as Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush seizes this next window of opportunity in the long campaign, here are four key factors to winning in November:

No. 1: Convince voters he can keep the economy strong.

Four years ago, Bob Dole argued the economy wasn't as good as it looked under Bill Clinton. Voters didn't buy it. Bush knows he can't make that mistake again when unemployment is low and millions of Americans have made more money in the stock market than they ever dreamed. At last week's convention, the Republicans did not pretend that these are not prosperous times.

"Times of plenty, like times of crisis, are tests of American character," Bush said as he accepted the Republican nomination Thursday night.

But the Texas governor must convince voters that his economic proposals won't jeopardize that prosperity. He must explain to wary voters how his massive tax cuts would not result in a return to the policies of Reaganomics that triggered huge budget deficits.

Gore and fellow Democrats will continue to remind people that the last time a George Bush was in the White House there was a recession.

That argument may be resonating.

John Zogby, an independent pollster, said the economy and jobs are now the top campaign issue for the first time since 1992 when Clinton hammered home, "it's the economy, stupid."

Voters who are asked whom they trust to keep the economy humming favor Gore over Bush, 49 percent to 41 percent, Zogby said.

Those sorts of numbers are one reason Bush does not vigorously promote his proposal for an enormous tax cut as much as other initiatives. But he must explain why broad tax cuts are attractive when most voters have other priorities. He also needs to counter the math by some economists that shows his proposal would gobble up the budget surplus. And, like the challenge of his well-choreographed convention, he must sand off a stereotypical image that Republicans like him care more about the rich than the regular guy.

Consider: Bush says his $1.6-trillion tax cut over 10 years would benefit families in all income brackets and includes doubling the per-child tax credit to $1,000. Yet according to a number of economists, because the poor and lower-middle class already pay no or relatively little in taxes, most of Bush's cuts would primarily benefit the wealthy.

Revised estimates that show the budget surplus growing even more than expected over the next decade has tempered some of the criticism of Bush's tax cuts.

But Gore, whose proposed cuts are about half as large, continues to play to economic anxiety about deficits. For example, he campaigns hard that Bush's support of $3-billion in tax cuts for Texans was misguided because so many low-income Texans got left behind and still have no health insurance.

Gov. Jeb Bush said voters don't think Gore should get the credit for the good economic times. He said they understand the private sector, not the Clinton administration, is primarily responsible.

"I don't think it's that big of a deal," he said.

It will be if his brother can't convince voters he can keep the good times rolling.

No. 2: Reassure seniors he won't ruin Social Security.

Bush claims credit for daring to find a long-term fix for Social Security as the country's elderly population soars.

Bush would allow younger workers to divert a small portion of their payroll taxes into potentially more lucrative private investment accounts. Gore's already playing to the anxiety of seniors that this is too risky and insists benefits would be cut should the economy go sour.

"They've got to clarify it," Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, said of the Bush campaign. "We've got to guarantee benefits for everyone for all time. It takes away their argument."

Of Gore's claims that the plan threatens the Social Security system, Shaw says: "Hogwash."

In a state such as Florida, though, you can't be too careful. The state's large number of seniors, who make up more than 40 percent of the voters in a low-turnout election, are more likely to be suspicious of changing the premise of the country's most sacred entitlement program.

The Social Security debate is tied to the more general question of Bush's ability to maintain the country's economic prosperity. But Bush has the tougher case to make than Gore.

Bush has to find a way to provide a better response without getting bogged down in numbers, and it won't be easy to get voters to listen to more than Gore's sound bites.

When Bush's chief economic adviser and several members of Congress arrived at a Philadelphia hotel last week to defend his Social Security proposal before the Florida delegation, the room emptied as though someone pulled a fire alarm.

3: Aggressively court Hispanic voters.

Hispanics are the soccer moms of this election. While 4.9-million Hispanics voted in the presidential election in 1996, there are now 7.2-million Hispanic voters nationally. They could make the difference in several key states.

Bush should focus on becoming more competitive in California, where Gore is ahead. About 13 percent of California's registered voters are Hispanic, and Dole won less than a quarter of the Hispanic vote there four years ago. If Bush could win better than one-third of the state's Hispanic vote this year, that could tighten the race for the state's 54 electoral votes.

Dole won just 17 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas and 46 percent in Florida, thanks to Cuban Republicans in South Florida. Bush should do far better in his home state and here, with his brother in the Governor's Mansion.

Nationally, Dole won just 21 percent of the Hispanic vote against President Clinton.

Bush will increase that number, but the question is by how much. He is at 32 percent of the national Hispanic vote now and rising, and he has several advantages he should continue to promote. Both Bush governors, George W. and Jeb, speak Spanish. Jeb Bush's wife, Columba, is Mexican. His son, George P., has become wildly popular as he campaigns for his uncle.

But a poll last month found Hispanics have far more confidence in Democrats than Republicans to address their concerns. On policy issues, Bush has made inroads. He has pledged to overhaul the Immigration and Naturalization Service and to slash the time it takes to process immigration applications. He also has rejected the immigrant-bashing rhetoric and policies once promoted by former California Gov. Pete Wilson that hurt Dole in 1996.

Yet gauging the inclinations of Hispanic voters is difficult, both Republicans and Democrats agree. Millions of Hispanics have registered to vote for the first time, turnout varies wildly across the country and many are not strongly tied to either political party.

Holding a red and blue rattle and wearing a hat adorned with campaign buttons, John Enriquez sat in the Philadelphia convention arena last week and recalled when his Texas relatives telephoned him in California to talk up Bush.

Enriquez, a 48-year-old Bakersfield Republican, said he was surprised by the Democrats' praise for their Republican governor's efforts to improve education and their confidence in his leadership skills.

Now the Bush campaign needs to spread that message to Hispanics across the country and particularly in California. A parade of African-Americans and Hispanics spoke last week to the overwhelmingly white Republican delegates. But the black speakers were aimed at reassuring white moderates that Bush is an inclusive politician, and Gore still will overwhelmingly carry the African-American vote in November.

Hispanic voters are a different dynamic.

"I think they see a different personality and different issues," Enriquez said of Bush, adding that the GOP nominee still has a tough time converting Hispanic Democrats in Los Angeles and San Francisco. "That's an entirely different story."

No. 4: The stature thing.

This may be Bush's toughest remaining challenge. Clinton framed it as only Clinton can.

"Nearest I can tell," he said, "the message of the Bush campaign has been just that, "How bad could I be? I've been governor of Texas, my daddy was president, I owned a baseball team.' "

That brought a sharp rebuke from the Bush family, including the governor's parents and his brother. But Bush's stature is an issue still on voters' minds, said Zogby, the pollster.

In contrast with Gore, Bush and his advisers freely acknowledge, perhaps a little too freely, that the Texas governor is no policy wonk. They describe Bush's leadership style as one of a chief executive officer who provides direction and broad policy themes, then lets others work out the details.

"This is not a guy who designed his own campaign logo," said Bush strategist Karl Rove in a dig at Gore's micromanaging style (Gore did design his logo).

Instead, the Bush campaign emphasizes that the Republican surrounds himself with credible, smart advisers who can carry out his directions. The convention stage was filled last week with team members whose resumes are far more impressive than Bush's: vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney, the former secretary of defense; retired Gen. Colin Powell, whom many Republicans envision as secretary of state; and Condoleezza Rice, the academic who is Bush's chief foreign policy adviser.

But there will be more occasions between now and November when Bush will be on his own, unable to turn to anyone for help.

The reaction to Clinton's criticism underscored that Bush and his family can be thin-skinned. Then there are the three planned fall debates with Gore, a respected debater. Bush aides already are planning for those confrontations and downplaying expectations.

Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon said in a recent interview that he feels no pressure to try to boost Bush's stature in television ads. The key, he said, is to capture a moment that illustrates the connections Bush makes with voters in person.

Bush, his allies hope, took a strong step toward seeming presidential with his 50-minute acceptance speech Thursday night. His speech, they said, showed that Bush is more than merely a likable Texan, skilled only in winks and grins.

-- Washington Bureau Chief Sara Fritz and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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