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What's propelling Bradley, McCain?

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 1999


WASHINGTON -- A favorite parlor game inside the Beltway involves trying to guess why Democratic former Sen. Bill Bradley and GOP Sen. John McCain are having so much success challenging two seemingly entrenched front-runners for their parties' nominations: Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

What makes this game especially challenging is that many of the accepted measures for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of presidential candidates do not seem to apply in the 2000 election race.

Take, for example, the political orthodoxy that an "outsider" always has the edge over someone who is identified with Washington. At first, it appeared the outsider honors belonged to the Republican front-runner, Bush. In fact, that was probably the biggest reason Bush was anointed front-runner before he ever set foot on the stump beyond the borders of Texas.

But skeptics within the GOP are beginning to ask: Who is the real outsider? Bush, the son of a former president, who grew up in a political family? Or McCain, the war hero whose temperament and maverick positions on issues set him apart from other members of his party in the Senate?

On the Democratic side, meanwhile, Bradley and Gore are testing the standard wisdom that says a candidate for president cannot completely rewrite his political resume in mid-campaign.

Bradley, a centrist in the Senate, would have you believe he is a liberal newcomer to the political scene. And Gore, who has been grooming for the presidency since birth, is trying to cast off the insider's mantle by moving his campaign headquarters to Nashville, Tenn., and shedding many of the trappings of the vice presidency.

I even noticed that Gore was looking mighty casual the other day by wearing a plaid wool shirt. Of course, a plaid shirt did not work for Lamar Alexander, who has dropped out of the GOP race. Perhaps Gore's earth-tone plaid will succeed where Alexander's red and black failed.

All that aside, it seems that everyone you meet in Washington wants to tell you a pet theory to explain why McCain and Bradley are doing better than expected against Bush and Gore. And these theories tend to fall into two categories: those that focus on the strengths of challengers, and those that focus on the weaknesses of the front-runners.

Analyzing the weaknesses of Gore and Bush is easier, of course. Most Americans -- and particularly those who live and work in the vicinity of Washington -- have a keen instinct for divining the vulnerabilities of a politician.

Political junkies see two major weaknesses in Bush. First, he does not have McCain's experience on a broad range of national issues. And second, he has been slow to establish a clear image of himself in the minds of voters.

Bush's supporters are just beginning to get nervous about his problems. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, a conservative publication, said he heard many Republicans asking after Bush's cautious performance last week in the New Hampshire debate: "He can do better than that, can't he?"

Gore's problems, of course, have been discussed ad nauseam. In this sense, Gore has a big advantage over Bush, whose weaknesses are only now becoming apparent. The well-known Gore liability list includes: wooden speaking style; policy wonkishness; a self-satisfied, boastful personality; and a history as the No. 2 man in a scandal-ridden administration. Need I say more?

Given the difficulties of the front-runners, many folks say it is not the least surprising that these two men are being forced to fight for the nomination. Someone, they reason, was bound to break from the pack in both parties to capitalize on an undercurrent of resentment against the idea that America's two major political parties would bestow their highest honor on two men who seem to see it as their birthright.

And so the handicappers are asking: What qualities do Bradley and McCain share that have allowed them to make a contest of it?

In person, to be sure, there are few similarities between Bradley and McCain. Bradley is tall, cerebral and low-key. McCain is short, stocky and intense. Their politics are quite different as well.

Nevertheless, there are many people in Washington known to pontificate on these matters who see a strong, not-easily-defined similarity between Bradley and McCain -- a similarity that is being credited for their unusually strong performance against the front-runners.

The most popular theory is that, unlike their opponents, this former basketball star and this ex-POW have accomplished something outside politics before running for office. They are, in many ways, more similar to our old-fashioned heroes than to our current run-of-the-mill politicians.

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about "Clinton fatigue," and most of it centers on the notion that Gore will be penalized by voters for his close relationship to the president. But some analysts believe Clinton fatigue is something broader and deeper than a simple desire to see the current occupant of the White House leave town.

I tend to agree with those pundits who say Clinton fatigue is actually a feeling among voters that they are tired of politicians who, like Clinton, have aspired since childhood to become president of the United States. Gore clearly falls in that category, and perhaps Bush does, too.

Not Bradley or McCain.

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