Say Goodbye To "Labor Pal Al" And "Bob Jones Bush"

Bush and Gore move to the center, where the swing voters are

`There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos." -- Texas populist Jim Hightower

...And maybe two guys named Al and George. Sorry, Jim, but it's about to get crowded in the undulating center of American politics. Traditionally, Presidential primaries push candidates to extremes, a reflection of the key role played by activists on both the left and right. That's what happened to Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush during the duo's brief struggle for their party's nominations--a fight capped by decisive wins for both men in coast-to-coast primaries on Mar. 7.

Now, Bush and Gore will bolt for the 'burbs, home to the centrists who will decide the election. "That's where the swing voters are," notes University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan. The standard bearers must shift from their bases and "look for middle- to upper-middle-class voters who are fiscally conservative and socially moderate."

Both Gore, who swamped challenger Bill Bradley everywhere on Tough Tuesday, and Bush, who sealed maverick John McCain's fate by snagging New York, Ohio, and California, have some tricky maneuvers ahead. The Texas governor began his campaign as an inclusive pol who talked up compassion and better schools. He wound up becoming the favorite of the Religious Right and hardcore conservatives.

Gore got a break from Bradley's decision to attack him as too conservative. Still, the Veep made expedient trade concessions to the AFL-CIO and environmentalists, embraced polarizing civil-rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton, and developed a zest for bare-knuckle politics--none of which will endear him to moderates and independents.

Bottom line? According to political pros, both victors need to use the months leading up to this summer's conventions to mend fences. "There will be time to heal the wounds," Bush said on Mar. 7. Corporate reps hope he's right. "You're going to see the Republicans start to coalesce," says Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. "They'd better if they want to win."

EDUCATION PUSH. That alone won't be enough. Bush, in particular, has left many backers worried. "He's shown that he's not quite ready," frets Steven Stockmeyer, legislative consultant to the National Association of Business Political Action Committees. "His advisers need to take him on a retreat and retrain him, because he's in no shape to debate Gore."

Bush's aides know he has been pushed off-course. In the weeks ahead, they plan a realignment that will emphasize education reform, which they feel appeals to women and minorities. The thrust: The Clinton Administration allowed schools to deteriorate, while reformer Bush is an innovator who boosted both test scores and local control.

On the economic front, Bush now knows that his $1.3 trillion tax cut is a dud with many swing voters. He'll forge ahead, but he'll stress the plan's benefits for working families. In a nod toward McCain's and Gore's demonstration of the potency of social security, Bush will provide details of his still-murky plan to shore up the retirement system.

Bush also has work to do repairing his image as an outsider. His record fund-raising--and raft of endorsements from elected officials and corporate bigwigs--has transformed him from an anti-Washington crusader into the favorite of the Beltway elite. "Bush's biggest loss was his outsider's stance," says GOP consultant Thomas N. Edmonds. "It'll be hard to get it back."

DAMAGE CONTROL. The Texan will try, however, by pushing his "reformer with results" message and talking up his record as an entrepreneur and statehouse manager. "We're hiring the CEO of the U.S.," says Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland. Bush already is on the offensive, branding Gore as champion of "the status quo in Washington."

Gore, for his part, emerged from his ordeal with fewer wounds than his rival, but he, too, has problems with moderates. The McCain surge among independents and Reagan Democrats was driven partially by revulsion over Administration ethics lapses. Swing voters "dislike Bill Clinton and in turn dislike Al Gore," says GOP pollster Edward Goeas. Gore hopes to limit the damage by noting he has come out for stronger campaign-finance reform than Bush and by attacking fat cats who bankrolled the record-breaking Bush campaign. "Bush has his own scandal now," crows Democratic National Chair Joe Andrew.

Fighting the rap that Gore is a captive of special interests may prove even tougher. To counter charges that he's in the pocket of Big Labor, greens, and radical feminists, the Veep will focus on his New Democrat credentials. As evidence, he'll trumpet his economic plan, which forgoes big spending and huge tax cuts in favor of debt reduction. "Bush will try to make Gore look like a big-government liberal," says Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "But on fiscal issues, Gore is to the right of Bush."

Both candidates must work to restore balance to their campaigns. But they clearly realize it, and are already in damage-control mode. So the next time you catch sight of "Labor Pal Al" or "Bob Jones Bush," don't be surprised if they come off as kinder, gentler versions of those not-so-distant selves.

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