Archive for Friday, September 8, 2000

Bush campaign is on the run

September 8, 2000


— His father once called it Big Mo. But George W. Bush's problem is Reverse Big Mo his momentum is going downhill like a runaway concrete truck.

Poor Dubya, he's a victim of Murphy's Law: "If anything can go wrong, it will."

And what should be Murphy's Corollary: "When a political campaign starts sliding, things go wrong faster and faster."

Since Bush began losing the War of Polls to Al Gore, he's fallen prey to gaffes, clinkers and bumbles. Once extolled as a steel-honed juggernaut, his stumbling campaign looks like "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight."

There's an aroma of flop sweat.

Start with last weekend's verbal pratfall. Forgetting an open microphone, Bush smiled at the press and clearly said, "There's Adam Clymer of the New York Times, a major asshole." Like a flunky echoing a CEO, Dick Cheney said, "Yeah, big time."

Did Bush's vitriolic cussword matter? It didn't touch Nixon's expletive-splattered tapes. It wasn't as shocking as Ronald Reagan's mock-nuclear attack announcement: "We start bombing in five minutes." It wasn't as fake macho as Bush the Pappa's bragging after debating Geraldine Ferraro: "We kicked a little ass tonight."

Oddly, Bush insiders saw Dubya's A-word as a plus: "It makes him look like a regular guy." Wrong. It seemed a lapse of judgment, discipline and poise. People thought it funny a bad sign when they laugh at a politician with his mouth unzipped.

But the public trashing of a reporter may register seismic rumblings in Bush's psyche. Clymer, a 23-year Times veteran, is no hatchetman. If Clymer's stodgy analyses of Bush policies are driving the candidate into rectal-aperture fury, Bush & Co. must be jittery to the edge of paranoia.

Maybe they're not panicked, but they have a right to be damn nervous. Shaken Republicans are demanding Haley Barbour take over the floundering Austin, Tex., operation.

Trouble is, the Bush cadre thought they had a free ride. Oh, Gore would fade after a post-convention bounce. Hasn't happened.

Mindful that the Labor Day leader has won every presidential race over 40 years, Bush & Co. see themselves on a slippery slope (Newsweek's poll has Gore up by 10 points.) Like a bully stung by a bloodied nose, the Bush team is making wild-swinging mistakes.

Typical is the Hassle Over Debates, a game of chicken which Bush and his ham-handed advisers are screwing up. They look as inept as the original New York Mets flubbing a triple play.

Instead of joining Gore to accept the bipartisan presidential commission's plan for three events, Bush is promoting a cockamamie scheme: debate on CNN's "Larry King Live" and around a table with NBC's Tim Russert. Fewer viewers the better.

If that ploy fails, maybe they'd settle for the Weather Channel, Home Shopping Network or "This Old House."

"He (Gore) said he'll debate 'anytime.' I guess it depends on how you define 'anytime,' " Bush slyly mocks Bill Clinton's linguistic shredding of the word "is" in his Monica testimony.

That copout won't work. Bush's team seems cowed by Gore's reputation as Super Wonk who'd mangle their guy on issues if they faced off formally. They want Bush in a cozy, Oprah-like setting where he could be charming if not knowledgeable.

I suspect they're underrating Dubya, who did fine in a Texas showdown against Ann Richards and in primaries against John McCain. Maybe they'll dither until there's no debate weird strategy for a troubled candidate. Instead of seeming tough and shrewd, the Bush plotters are painting Dubya as a weakling on the run.

And not smart enough for prime time.

The test is whether Bush can run from behind. He looked equally ragged when McCain began dominating last spring. Only South Carolina's Christian Right and some vicious ads McCain was against veterans, for breast cancer saved Dubya.

If Bush is losing by World Series time, he'll have to gamble on turning mean. And never mind prattle about "dignity" and "civility."

After all, that's the Bush family M.O., which Dubya learned at the knee of the late terrorist Lee Atwater in his father's 1988 campaign:

When in trouble, bring on Willie Horton.

Sandy Grady is the Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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