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The faces are new, but the plot sure seems familiar

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 4, 1999


We have seen this movie before.

A candidate named Bush raises an obscene amount of money, reaches beyond traditional Republican voters, stiff-arms social issues, and leads wire to wire.

A Democrat, the No. 2 man in government and a policy wonk with more experience, can't keep pace in the money race and suffers from a serious charisma deficit.

George W. Bush is playing the same role his younger brother, Jeb, played in the Florida governor's race last year. Vice President Al Gore is reprising the part played by former Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay.

Florida Democrats wince at that comparison, but it fits.

Like MacKay, Gore reflects most voters' attitudes toward the environment (protect it), abortion rights (defend them), public education (lower class sizes, avoid tuition vouchers) and guns (reasonable restrictions).

The Bush brothers oppose abortion rights, favor punishing criminals who use guns instead of more gun controls and support tuition vouchers. At first glance, George W. Bush appears more vulnerable on the environment than the Florida governor.

Yet on this Fourth of July, the Texas governor is hotter than a firecracker. You wonder why some of his Republican opponents even bother spending their holiday at picnics in Iowa.

Gore took credit for the booming economy during his trip to Florida last week, just as MacKay took credit for the new jobs that came to the state during the Chiles administration.

"I know how to keep prosperity going," Gore said in Miami Beach.

But George W. Bush is right. The Clinton administration did not invent prosperity in the voters' eyes. It certainly helped things along with the deficit-reduction package in 1993, and it won the budget battle in 1995 when the Republicans foolishly forced a government shutdown.

In 2000, Gore is not going to be rewarded for that any more than Floridians were willing to reward MacKay for low unemployment.

The vice president is not going to benefit from Clinton's job approval ratings, just as MacKay did not soak up the affection Florida had for Chiles. In different ways, Clinton and Chiles connected with people. Gore and MacKay don't have the same gift, and their bosses' charisma is not transferable.

As in any sequel, there are some different twists. Most of them do not benefit Gore.

While Gore gets little credit for the Clinton administration's successes, he still carries the baggage of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and the president's impeachment. That might not be fair, but it's a fact of political life, and Gore knows he has to address it no matter how much it irritates the president.

When he said last week, "I will take my own values of faith and family to the presidency," the message was not lost on anyone.

Bill Bradley offers another subplot. Just as significant as the record $36.3-million raised by George W. Bush is the $11.5-million raised by the former New York Knick and New Jersey senator. That should enable Bradley to be competitive with Gore, who has raised $18.5-million, in a one-on-one contest. It also means there are plenty of Democrats out there who are not sold on the vice president.

Now Gore has done what MacKay and most other candidates do when they are in trouble: hire different consultants. He brought in a new pollster and a new media adviser last week after the fundraising numbers were announced.

But what Gore really needs is an issue beyond his two favorites, the environment and technology.

A prosperous economy will not be enough, unless Republicans in Congress repeat their past mistakes as they negotiate with Clinton over spending the budget surplus.

It's not going to be abortion rights, no matter how loud Rep. Alcee Hastings of Fort Lauderdale screams about the possibility of Bush appointing three new justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. Most Americans already have staked out their positions on abortion, and they are not likely to change.

It's probably not going to be foreign policy, no matter how much Gore and Dan Quayle talk about their experience and Bush's lack of it. Voters tend to look toward domestic issues in selecting their choice for president.

It could be education. Bush and Gore have different approaches to raising standards and improving student performance. But voters associate education more with local and state politicians.

Gun control may have more potential.

Following the Columbine High School shooting in April, the nation's attitude toward guns shifted. The U.S. Senate seized the moment to close a gun-show loophole that Florida voters addressed last year, but the National Rifle Association regrouped and the House's efforts failed.

Clinton and Gore are hitting the issue hard. Without mentioning Bush by name, the vice president alluded to the Texas governor's approval of new state laws creating concealed-weapon permits and shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuits filed by local governments.

"Not me," Gore said in Miami Beach. "I'm for shielding children and families against gun violence in this country. That is a perfect example of the difference between having a coalition of common sense that can keep the nation moving in the right direction, and letting the NRA call the shots and set the agenda."

Bradley has gone even further, calling for a ban on the manufacture, sale, distribution, and possession of "Saturday night specials"; registration and licensing of all handguns; and banning gun dealers from selling weapons in residential areas. He also would limit handgun purchases to one a month, require background checks at gun shows and require trigger locks on handguns.

Bush, meanwhile, does not raise the issue in his campaign speeches. In an interview June 25 while campaigning in Florida, he said he had backed the NRA-supported amendment in the House. He blamed House Democrats for killing gun legislation so the issue would be kept alive for the election. That may be right. But Bush's response indicates he is not ready to acknowledge the country's changing attitude toward guns or prepared to buck the NRA.

Gore can't win just with gun control. But it could give him a shot at writing a different ending to Bush, the sequel.

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