For Bush backers, it's all about leadership

For Bush backers, it's all about leadership

Republicans used to win presidential elections by drawing bright lines to distinguish themselves from Democrats on issues. But George W. Bush is a different kind of Republican, and he wants to wage a different kind of fall campaign.

"It will go to the bigger thematic issue of leadership," said Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media strategist. "There are differences on Social Security and tax cuts and rebuilding the military, but fundamentally, what people are looking for is leadership. That's a big issue and big idea, under which all these issues fall."

But to some Republicans, that might sound eerily like Democrat Michael Dukakis' effort to define the 1988 presidential campaign around the theme of "competence."

"It's a calculated risk," said religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition. "I believe that sometime after the convention, there has to be a delineation, for people to vote Republican," said Robertson. "I go along with the strategy of this convention, but we've got three months to make that delineation."

Most in the party don't share Robertson's sense of foreboding, although they acknowledge his point. "We haven't established as sharp a contrast as in the past," said Rep. David Dreier of California. But that's less of a problem in 2000, Dreier said, because voters will understand that Bush, and his running mate Dick Cheney, are politicians with "deeply rooted principles."

Added Rep. John Kasich of Ohio: "I think there's plenty of time to distinguish the differences between George Bush and Al Gore, but right now we're playing on their side of the field. That's the way it ought to be."

Indeed, Bush is spending much of his time focusing on education, Social Security, and Medicare reform-issues traditionally associated with Democrats-partly to show swing voters that he's a different kind of Republican. Bush will stress that his record of dealing with Democratic legislators in Austin makes him more likely to be able to craft solutions than is the Vice President, who's been part of the partisan warfare in Washington.

As Bush said in his acceptance speech: "I don't have enemies to fight. And I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years. I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect."

Bush aides predict that voters will pick up on that theme when measuring Bush against Gore. "Governor Bush wants a campaign that is a hopeful, uplifting debate on the issues, understanding that partisan politics is not in America's interests," said Bush media consultant Russell Schriefer. "I think that's in stark contrast to what the Gore campaign is doing, which is nothing but contrast and attack."

Bush's emphasis on staying positive and seeking consensus could also help deflect concerns of some swing voters about electing a Republican President and a Republican Congress.

Even Republicans with a reputation for confrontation are content to follow Bush's lead. "I think the nation is saying, 'We'd like to see our politics be a little more subtle,' " said House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. "The lines are still there; they're a little more subtle."

Republicans are upbeat about Bush's prospects in the fall, but they don't believe that his lead in the polls following their successful convention in Philadelphia is assured. "It looks good for Bush, but we have a heck of a lot of work to do when we get home," said Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.

With Bush comfortably ahead of Gore in many GOP-leaning states, Bush strategists say that Cheney will spend much of his time campaigning in the battleground states. The campaign says that it will have a significant tactical advantage as long as Bush remains competitive in Democratic-leaning states, such as Washington and West Virginia. "We're going to spend a lot of time talking to independents in battleground states, while the Vice President has to spend time in all 50 states," said Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Those appeals to independents were clear in Bush's acceptance speech. Citing his record in Texas, Bush said: "I don't deserve all the credit, and I don't attempt to take it. I worked with Republicans and Democrats to get things done."

Another Bush goal will be to connect Gore and Bill Clinton. "That is a powerful issue that is fueling the energy in the Bush campaign," said Taft. But some GOP strategists say that it would be a mistake for Bush to spend much time dwelling on the outgoing President.

"I think there is a strong case to be made that Al Gore is a lot more liberal than Clinton, but they haven't drawn those distinctions, because there's a visceral hatred, among Republicans, of Clinton," said Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative political action committee. "It's time for the GOP to get beyond Bill Clinton."

And despite all the brotherly love that the Republicans and Bush displayed in Philadelphia, some GOP strategists believe that Bush will inevitably sharpen the contrasts with Gore.

"I have no reason to believe they won't draw lines in the sand, because they're smart people and they know that's what you have to do to win," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "If you want to smile rather than snarl at a convention, that's fine."