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With 'rats' and 'Friends,' Bush stumbling again

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 2000


ORLANDO -- George W. Bush wanted to talk about long-term care Tuesday.

He wound up talking about rats, dyslexia and Friends. After one successful day in Clearwater, the Texas governor's retooled campaign suddenly sounded a lot like his old campaign.

Off-tune, off-message and off-balance.

The result is that Bush burned up another day flailing around instead of giving voters specific reasons why he should be president. For a candidate who lost his momentum and his nationwide lead, who is tied in a state he should have locked up long ago, this is not good.

This time, though, it's not all Bush's fault.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that an ad paid for by the Republican National Committee flashed the word "Rats" across the screen as it promoted Bush's prescription drug proposal and criticized Gore's plan. In a Good Morning America interview from the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Bush appeared to be caught by surprise by questions about a possible subliminal message.

"This has got to be one of the more bizarre accusations," he said. "I don't think there's a plot to try to put subliminal messages into people's minds."

But by the time Bush's 757 campaign plane landed in Orlando, the ad was all that was on the minds of reporters traveling with him. Bush introduced another "tax family" at the airport, the media's shorthand for the people the campaign trots out at every stop to try to demonstrate that middle-class families would save more under the Texas governor's proposed tax cuts than under Gore's.

Nobody cared.

As Bush tried to bring the questions back to issues, reporters kept pounding away at the ad. Bush said he had previewed the ad on a computer aboard his plane and hadn't seen the word. He pointed out the word flashes across the screen too quickly to be easily seen by television viewers. He said the ad, which has been broadcast in Florida, already was scheduled to go off the air in the next day or so.

"I am convinced this is not intentional," Bush said on the tarmac. "I will say, to put people's minds at ease, this kind of thing is not acceptable."

The questions didn't let up.

After Bush arrived at Florida Hospital in downtown Orlando, reporters surrounded communications director Karen Hughes even as Bush sat down to chat with doctors about long-term care. They circled her again immediately afterward before she ducked behind a curtain. She pointed out that "wit" also flashed on the screen, part of the word "with."

Meanwhile, the consultant changed his story. Alex Castellanos, who is producing the ads for the Republican National Committee, acknowledged that he flashed "rats" intentionally just as the announcer says, "Bureaucrats decide." He told reporters he was trying to make the ad more interesting.

You have to wonder whether Castellanos has tried this before in Florida. He was the media consultant for Republican Bob Martinez in 1990 and for Gov. Jeb Bush in 1994.

"There may have been some, but I didn't see them," laughed Jim Krog, who managed Lawton Chiles' successful campaigns against Martinez and Bush. "I was pretty slow back then. I'm not sure I would have caught any of them."

No Gore ad has knocked George W. Bush so far off-stride as this one by a member of his own team. But the ad controversy was just one of the annoyances bugging Bush.

An article in the October Vanity Fair raises the possibility that Bush's fumbling over words can be attributed to dyslexia. That prompted more questions.

"No, I am not dyslexic," Bush said.

Apparently, he also is not a big television watcher.

Asked on Good Morning America whether he thought the hit television show Friends is too racy, Bush replied: "The movie? I haven't seen it. I haven't had much time to be watching. .. . "

The exchange was barely noticed amid all the excitement about rats and dyslexia. But it may have been more revealing about Bush than anything else Tuesday.

He has never heard of Friends?

Good thing he wasn't asked about the price of a gallon of milk.

There was a brief event here on long-term care. Bush spent all of 15 minutes chatting with several doctors and a patient about long-term care and prescription drugs in a staged-for-television event that was lost in the shuffle.

The irony of Bush's difficult day was that in an environment where every element is controlled, he could not regain control of the news of the day.

In presidential campaigns, very little occurs that is spontaneous. Sites for campaign appearances are selected days in advance. Interstates are closed down for the candidate's motorcade. Tickets are generally required to attend the events, minimizing the possibility that any undecided voter with tough questions will show up.

Even supposedly unscripted stops are scripted. When Bush spent a few minutes at a West Palm Beach diner Tuesday morning, the place was filled with GOP supporters who had been alerted by the campaign the previous night.

But all of the planning and all of the advance teams in the world can't seem to get Bush back on track for more than a day. Since the national conventions, he has been as off-balance as Gore was in the months beforehand.

In Florida, you can sense a shift in the race even without the polls confirming that Bush and Gore are tied. Gore has hit his stride. Bush is trying to regain his.

Sometimes it's not the candidate's fault. Sometimes, campaign trips seem destined for trouble.

Outside a Republican fundraiser Bush attended Monday night at a Palm Beach mansion, an electrical transformer exploded and caused a momentary scare.

Tuesday morning in Orlando, a motorcycle police officer who was helping close the interstate for the Bush entourage hit a slick spot and crashed, apparently resulting in a significant loss of skin.

Road rash, his fellow officers said. Hardly life-threatening but definitely uncomfortable.

That describes Bush's condition as well.

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