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A few presidential campaign questions to ponder by the pool

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 1999


Ah, Labor Day weekend.

A nip in the air. Football. The kickoff of the campaign season.

Never mind that it is still hot, the NFL doesn't start for real until next week and the general election is still 14 months away.

Presidential politics should crank up another notch as we head toward fall. We survived the creation of exploratory committees, the Iowa straw poll, the fall of Lamar Alexander and the rise of Al Gore's ever-expanding list of consultants. We heard more than enough about how much George W. Bush loves his wife, Elizabeth Dole loves details and Bill Bradley loves big ideas.

Now it's time to get serious.

Wednesday, Bradley kicks off his campaign (again) from his childhood Missouri home (again). Thursday, Steve Forbes makes his first major stop in this area at the National Baptist Convention's meeting in Tampa. And Bush, Bradley and most of the other candidates promise to spend the fall adding meat to their proposals after talking mush most of the summer.

Florida's primary may not be until March, but the Iowa caucuses are just five months away.

Questions to ponder by the pool:

How can Bush move past the cocaine issue?

Polls show voters don't care, but the national media do. The Texas governor lost the high ground when he revealed he has not done cocaine in the past 25 years. That lends credibility to those who wonder why Bush can volunteer he has always been faithful to his wife and quit drinking at 40 but won't be candid about whether he did or didn't use cocaine.

Can Bradley have enough big ideas to get by Gore?

Bradley has won attention for raising more money than expected against an incumbent vice president. He contrasts himself with the Clinton administration, which is consumed with issues more suited to local mayors and police departments. But the former New Jersey senator will have to get more specific about his grand vision on race relations and the economy if he is to make it past New Hampshire.

What will be the dominating issue?

Certainly not tax cuts. Perhaps Social Security and Medicare, although those are a bit dry for headliners. Gun control holds promise, if only because there are clear differences between Republicans and Democrats. Something else is bound to surface.

When will Dan Quayle give it up?

The former vice president has no chance of winning. If he is seeking respect, he won't make any real progress until David Letterman and Jay Leno retire. Don't expect to see him in Florida.

How will Gore redefine himself?

He wants to step out of the shadow, take credit for the Clinton administration's accomplishments and distance himself from the president's personal problems. That is a difficult trick, especially for someone whose first name seems to be "wooden."

Why is Elizabeth Dole running?

She has a great resume. She says she is not positioning herself to be Bush's running mate. Then she had better come up with some positions that distinguish her from the front-runner and give voters a reason to support her besides her gender.

What is the fascination with "faith-based" programs?

Bush, Gore and others want to loosen the restrictions on spending public money on such programs. They argue that religious-affiliated counseling centers, shelters and food banks often are more successful than government operations. But many of those faith-based programs already are strained. Surely somebody is going to question forcing drug abusers to pray if they want treatment paid for with public dollars.

Will Patrick Buchanan jump to the Reform Party?

He might as well. His campaign does not have the juice it had when he upset Bob Dole in the 1996 New Hampshire primary. But Buchanan worked for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. The prediction here is that he's been a Republican too long to change colors now, and he doesn't sound like a good fit for the Reform Party anyway.

Will there be a Reform Party candidate?

Yes. About $13-million in federal matching dollars are sitting there waiting. They may go to waste, but they will be spent.

How dangerous is Steve Forbes?

He is a threat to Bush because he is the only other Republican who has the money to play the game. It doesn't bother him that it's his own money. Whether his peculiar blend of flat-tax rhetoric and new-found affinity for religious conservatives takes hold is questionable. What is not in question is that all of the commercials in the world won't make him look or sound presidential.

Will Warren Beatty run?

Come on.

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