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16 days to make a final impression

The presidential contenders are mindful of every move they make as the race sprints to a finish.

By SARA FRITZ and TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000


With just 16 days left before the presidential election, Al Gore and George W. Bush are scurrying to leave voters with carefully formed images of themselves.

The vice president wants to be remembered sitting with a middle-class family at their kitchen table, discussing economic issues. The Texas governor wants to look voters directly in the eye as he talks warmly about trust.

These are simple themes, but they are based on stunningly complex political calculations -- millions of dollars of polling, thousands of hours of deliberations among high-priced consultants, and a strong conviction in both campaigns that these are the scenes that will help decide one of the closest elections in decades.

The vice president's advisers say he will hold one of his so-called "kitchen table" discussions with a different family every morning for the next two weeks. His goal is to convince undecided voters that he cares about their economic well-being and that his programs are the ones that will ensure their personal prosperity.

The Texas governor, meanwhile, is selling himself and his personality at least as much as his proposals. He is expected to broadcast a 30-second television commercial in which he looks directly into the camera and says Gore trusts government, and he trusts people. In return, obviously, Bush wants them to trust him.

To say that Bush and Gore have a lot riding on these competing themes would be an understatement. New national polls released Saturday show Bush edging ahead. And while Bush aides talked of building momentum, Gore officials estimated that up to 15 percent of the voters may be undecided or willing to change their minds.

"This is going to be a close election," Bush told supporters last week during a rally in Wisconsin. "Nobody should take anything for granted. It's going to be down to the wire."

Planning ahead

Different people respond differently to pressure. Inside the Gore camp, there is a sense of gritty determination as they prepare for the final days of the campaign. Bush and his advisers, on the other hand, are in a jovial mood bordering on cockiness.

As the two campaign planes departed from St. Louis' Lambert Field last week after the candidates' final debate, Gore's aides outlined the "big choices" facing the next president while Bush joked with reporters on his plane's public address system.

Gore was convinced that he had won the final debate -- so convinced, in fact, that he announced he wanted to use his own campaign funds to rebroadcast it on an unspecified cable network.

"We think he framed the contrast well," Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway said.

Bush, a less experienced debater, seemed thrilled just to have survived that phase of the campaign with his sense of momentum still intact.

"If I had suggested to you 14 days ago that after four debates Gov. Bush and Secretary Cheney would be in this position, you would have thought the spin was set too high," communications director Karen Hughes said. "We've come out of the debate phase with the trend clearly in our direction."

Some of Bush's supporters sound as relieved as they are upbeat.

"You haven't blown it," conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told Bush during a live telephone call, comparing the governor's supporters to nervous fans who were excited their team finally made it to the World Series but feared a mistake at the end. "They are jazzed and they are fired up."

The two campaigns are concentrating their efforts in about 10 "battleground states" that are still up for grabs and are buying television advertising in about another 10 states as well. One of the biggest prizes, of course, is Florida.

Early in the election season, Bush was expected to easily win Florida's 25 electoral votes with the help of his younger brother, Gov. Jeb Bush. But the race remains tight, although several new polls indicate the Texas governor may finally have a narrow advantage. No Republican has won the White House without Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

Mark McKinnon, the Bush campaign's top media consultant, believes Gore made a mistake by spending heavily in the state.

"They invested in Florida at the expense of other states," McKinnon said. "Their Florida strategy could really come back and bite them. They gave up a lot."

But Gore's strategists disagree.

"Florida looks like a better opportunity (for Gore) every day," Hattaway said, adding that they would not be distracted by daily fluctuations in the Florida polls.

The candidates and their supporters will flock to Florida and the Tampa Bay area this week.

On Monday and Tuesday, Republican governors Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and Edward Schafer of North Dakota will campaign for Bush in five cities, including St. Petersburg.

Meanwhile, Gore's running mate, Joseph Lieberman, will be in Miami-Dade County on Monday. Lieberman's mother and daughter will also campaign that day in Lakeland and Tampa. And Gore's daughter Karenna will visit the University of South Florida on Tuesday.

She may run into the Bush brothers.

The Texas governor and his younger brother, Jeb, will take a one-day bus tour Wednesday that is expected to start in Daytona Beach and end at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Hillsborough County. Sen. John McCain is expected to join them.

On television, Floridians will see new ads from the Democrats and Gore attacking Bush's Social Security proposal. Bush starts airing two new ads on education on Monday.

And in their mailboxes this weekend, thousands of Florida seniors found a brochure from the Florida Democratic Party that described the candidates' prescription drug plans. The brochures have headlines such as "No one should have to decide between filling their grocery cart or filling their prescription" and "Did you ever see a hungry insurance company?"

Bush officials complained the brochure was filled with distortions, but a Democratic campaign spokesman said the comparisons were accurate.

While Bush battles to win Florida, Gore is not even assured of winning his home state.

The Texas governor made a campaign stop in Tennessee last week, and Gore has been forced to return there again and again. Hattaway insisted Gore is still doing well in what he called "a growing Republican state."

Bush's biggest advantage over Gore is that Republicans have more money to spend than the Democrats in the final days. The Republican Party had more than twice as much money at the beginning of October than the Democrats.

Gore strategists and Democratic Party officials knocked down suggestions Saturday that they are pulling out of some states. The Democratic Party will air ads in eight additional states, including Ohio and Tennessee, this week.

But Bush aides note the Texas governor is still competing in such traditionally Democratic states as Oregon, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. And he plans another trip to the Democratic stronghold of California.

"They are having to defend more traditional turf than we are," McKinnon said.

'Big choices'

Like a courtroom lawyer, Gore is ready to make what his advisers call the "closing argument" to the voters. He will outline a series of "big choices" that voters will be making when they choose between Gore and Bush.

As he sees it, they must choose between giving a tax cut to the wealthy or to middle-class families who need it, between depleting Social Security by privatizing it or strengthening it, and between squandering the surplus or using it to pay off the national debt.

"On Nov. 7, we face one of the biggest choices America has faced in a generation: a choice of priorities, a choice of values, a choice as fundamental as prosperity itself," Gore said Thursday in a speech at Columbia University that introduced the themes of his closing argument.

"Will we seize this moment to extend prosperity and share it widely, or will we just lavish more on those who need it least and hope the benefits trickle down to everybody else? Will we make the right choices and the right investments to keep our economy growing or will we bust the budget and shortchange the future for a massive tax cut for the few?"

Gore says that while Republicans once had a reputation for being better fiscal managers than Democrats, they have squandered that reputation by promising massive tax cuts along with increases in spending.

The Democrat also intends to focus on the $1-trillion that Bush acknowledged his Social Security proposal would require from a projected $2.4-trillion surplus in the Social Security trust fund. The $1-trillion is the estimated cost over 10 years of allowing younger workers to divert part of their payroll taxes from Social Security into private investment accounts.

Gore would devote all of the $2.4-trillion Social Security surplus to paying down the national debt, which would free up more money for the entitlement program.

To this end, the Democratic Party has begun airing new television ads in Florida and 10 other battleground states asserting that if Bush makes good on this promise to younger workers, he will plunge the Social Security trust fund into bankruptcy, depriving older workers of their promised retirement benefits.

The ad concludes by asking: "Which one of those promises will you keep, governor, and which will you break?"

Perhaps the most controversial element of Gore's endgame plan involves his decision not to campaign with President Clinton. Some Democrats close to Clinton think this is a mistake, but Gore insists he must appear to be -- as he puts it -- "my own man."

Deputy campaign director Mark Fabiani says Clinton will be called on to help in some limited ways, however. The president will make radio commercials, tape telephone messages to voters, continue fundraising appearances and make one trip to California to rally the Democratic faithful there.

Warming up

With polls showing a shift in voters' top priorities from the economy to morals and values, Bush believes he can dismiss Gore's charges of fiscal irresponsibility as nothing more than a maze of numbers. Bush, instead, is emphasizing warm and fuzzy, Reagan-style visions of an America where neighbors help one another, entrepreneurs thrive and all children learn.

That's where the issue of trust comes in. In a 60-second ad that the Bush camp intends to rework into a campaign-closing 30-second spot, the Republican governor speaks directly into the camera while lush music plays.

"I believe we need to encourage personal responsibility so people are accountable for their actions," Bush says. "And I believe in government that is responsible to the people. That's the difference in philosophy between my opponent and me. He trusts government. I trust you. I trust you to invest some of your own Social Security money for higher returns. I trust local people to run their own schools. . . . I trust you with some of the budget surplus. I believe one-fourth of the surplus should go back to the people who pay the bills.. . .

"We should help people live their lives, but not run them. Because when we trust individuals, when we respect local control of schools, when we empower communities, together we can ignite America's spirit and renew our purpose."

Although his final pitch to voters is built on this theme, Bush is not allowing Gore's charges of fiscal irresponsibility to go unchallenged. In a speech in suburban Detroit last week, the governor responded directly to the DNC ad and said Gore does not trust people to manage their own retirement money.

"Al Gore leads the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- but the only thing he has to offer is fear itself . . . ," Bush declared. "A true leader does not try to pit grandparents against grandchildren."

According to Bush's math, the $2.4-trillion surplus from the Social Security trust fund over the next 10 years would be enough money to both guarantee existing benefits for seniors and older workers while enabling younger workers to open private investment accounts.

Then, he said, the personal accounts will grow to $3-trillion by 2016 -- "helping save Social Security for the future and building wealth for a new generation of Americans."

As he defends his $1.3-trillion proposed tax cut, Bush also falls back on the traditional GOP criticism of Democrats: They are big spenders. To bolster that point, the Republican Party is preparing to air an ad that will recount the Bush argument that Gore's spending plans are three times what President Clinton proposed and larger than the combined proposals of previous Democratic presidential candidates Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

With the outcome of the election likely to be in doubt until the very end, the intensity of the battle will only increase. In addition to the television air war, both sides are spending millions on telephone calls and grass-roots efforts to turn out their supporters at the polls.

"I'm here to ask for the vote -- again," Bush told supporters Friday in New Hampshire, the site of his first primary election loss to McCain. "The ability of a neighbor to turn to a neighbor and say, "Let's go vote for ol' George W.' is going to make a big difference."

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