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Clearly an interesting campaign of differences and learning

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000


Al Gore gave us the convention kiss and the debate sigh. George W. Bush shared the smirk, the wink and a new pronunciation for subliminal.

This race for president, however it comes out Tuesday, has both entertained and educated anyone paying attention.

The nation heard more about the swing voters in Florida's "I-4 corridor" than they ever dreamed. Bob Jones University in South Carolina achieved more notoriety from a Bush visit in February than it ever wanted. Philadelphia and Los Angeles hosted relatively calm national conventions by posting SWAT teams on every corner.

Voters disdained attack politics. But they loved it when microphones picked up Bush calling a New York Times reporter a "major league a--h---" on Labor Day. He probably rose a few points in the opinion polls.

The other most memorable Bush news conference occurred Thursday night, outside a cattle barn at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Milwaukee. The Texas governor confirmed news reports that he was arrested and pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in 1976. We won't the effect of that revelation until Tuesday.

"Major league a--h---" wasn't the only line that will be forever associated with the 2000 campaign. The Bush campaign produced some wonderfully crafted phrases. Compassionate conservative. The soft bigotry of low expectations. Prosperity with a purpose. Defining what they mean is another thing altogether.

Both Bush and Gore talked of putting the Social Security surplus in a "lock box." The vice president said the words so often that Saturday Night Live produced a skit about it that is certain to be a classic.

Slogans came and went like the seasons.

In January, Bill Bradley assured us, "It can happen." It didn't. Bradley never won a single Democratic primary and has faded from sight.

John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" ran out of gas before spring. And Bush changed slogans as often as Gore changed campaign managers.

The "Compassionate Conservative" became "A Reformer with Results." Then he offered "Real Plans for Real People." Now he's "Bringing America together."

Some messages were more subtle.

When someone slowly replayed a Bush ad and found the word "rats," the campaign first denied it was intentional. When that didn't work, reporters were served cheese on the campaign plane.

There are all sorts of contradictions.

Gore spouts populist themes and wants to "fight for you" even though he spent much of his youth living in a posh Washington hotel. Bush assures voters he is for the common people, even though the largest chunk of his tax cuts would go to the top 1 percent of America's wealthiest people, and he spends summers at the family compound in Kennebunkport.

When McCain and Bradley were in the race, voters surprised the skeptics, who contend no one cares about campaign finance reform. Then Gore and Bush and their respective political parties went ahead and smashed all fundraising records.

Along with a flood of money came a torrent of information on the Internet. All of the major candidates offered sophisticated Web sites, and by last week Bush was reminding voters that Internet addresses start with his middle initial. McCain demonstrated the Internet's fundraising capacity, taking in more than $4-million in contributions through his Web site.

There still is a thirst for a third party candidate, but neither Patrick Buchanan nor Ralph Nader could match Ross Perot's popularity in 1992. The Reform Party demonstrated it's possible to ruin a good thing, even if your nominee qualifies for $12-million in public money.

Along the way we also learned a few things about ourselves.

Americans discovered they are tolerant enough to accept someone of a different religious faith as a candidate for national office. Gore running mate Joseph Lieberman educated many of us about the observances and beliefs of Orthodox Jews, and whispered fears of an anti-Semitic backlash proved unfounded.

Floridians educated the rest of the country about our state. The national perception that it is a bastion for Republican conservatism rather than a model of moderate pragmatism should be put to rest -- regardless of Tuesday's outcome. So should the notion that embracing one Bush brother as governor automatically means favoring another Bush brother for president.

An extremely close election also introduced many voters to the Electoral College and its idiosyncrasies. The number most associated with Florida this week isn't fourth, the national ranking of its population. It's 25, as in electoral votes.

Voters who keep begging for candidates to be specific got their wish and may regret it. Bush and Gore keep talking about Social Security transition costs, prescription drug formularies and the wisdom of tax credits for everything from college savings to cars that run on alternative fuels.

There were distortions, of course.

Gore is not the wild-eyed liberal that Bush claims or as robotic as the media portray him. The Texas governor is not the ultra-conservative portrayed by the vice president or as dumb as his harshest critics contend.

But many of the policy differences are clear.

Bush favors a large tax cut; Gore's tax cut would be less than half as big. Gore proposes a prescription drug benefit for seniors through Medicare; Bush would rely more on private insurers and health maintenance organizations. Bush opposes abortion rights; Gore supports them.

What we're left with are two flawed candidates who have different views about the role of government and the future of the country, who waged reasonably interesting campaigns and generally avoided the nastiness of some past contests.

All that's left to do now, finally, is vote.

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