Bush’s Survival Strategy

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Linda A. DiVall is president of a public-research firm and was a senior advisor to Bob Dole's 1996 campaign

We’ve already seen one conventional political benchmark discarded: the importance placed on who’s leading the presidential race in polls taken right after Labor Day. Vice President Al Gore won that contest, but Texas Gov. George W. Bush now leads in the all-important national tracking polls. This shift was largely unanticipated. Most analysts had assumed the nation would be tuned into the Olympics and that voters wouldn’t be changing their minds until after the debates. Inordinate credit was given to the kiss Gore landed on his wife, Tipper, at the Democratic National Convention for solidifying his support among women--until Bush appeared on “Oprah” and “Live! With Regis” and stole back the hearts of women. Don’t you just love these simplistic assumptions about voter behavior?

So what does Bush need to do to “survive” the debates, to use the word of his chief strategist, Karl Rove? Anyone who watched Bush on “Larry King Live” the other night witnessed an excellent preview of Bush’s strategy, which consists of three elements.

First, Bush needs to regain the advantage on leadership and trust while reestablishing Gore’s character flaws. Bush is well on his way to restoring that advantage, thanks to Gore’s manipulation of the nation’s strategic oil reserves and his inflated claims about his mother-in-law’s prescription-drug costs.


The second element is issue contrast. In the debates, Bush should not be defensive about his oil background but use his expertise to articulate the flawed energy policy of the Clinton administration and define his vision for what needs to be done. During the campaign, Bush has enjoyed his greatest success when he has highlighted the distinctions between his and Gore’s positions on the issues and has been able to personalize the impact of his policies on people.

Gore is the policy wonk, Bush has the people connection. In the debates, Bush should concede the wonk vote to Gore and concentrate instead on clearly communicating his plans for the country, emphasizing the values he shares with critical swing-voter groups.

The third element is likability. Both candidates are about equal on this dimension, though there are some differences among subgroups of voters. Bush is more favorably perceived among men, married women and seniors; Gore does better among single women, younger voters and aging boomers. Bush is seen as a congenial, friendly, open person--and, ironically, those traits could undermine his debate performance.

For example, if Gore engages in all-out combat, Bush may respond in a congenial tone. That would be a mistake. Bush needs to demonstrate an ability to fight back without appearing hyper-aggressive. He needs to shed the gunslinger image he sometimes conveys.

Bush’s ultimate target is undecided voters in Washington, Oregon, California, Florida and the critical Midwestern battleground states. These voters are female, ticket splitters, moderate, concerned about the quality of public education, anxious about Social Security being there when they retire, worried about the decline of moral values and uncertain about their ability to juggle work and family. These women tend to be late deciders and don’t have time to watch the evening news or read editorial and opinion pages. So the debates provide them with one-stop shopping for information on the candidates’ vision, policies, ideas and demeanor.

The debates offer Bush a unique opportunity to impress upon these women that he is the man for the job and that his convictions demonstrate he is fully qualified to be president. He’s comfortable with himself (personality make-overs or new clothes are not for him), and that will help him in this regard. In contrast, Gore comes across as someone who is never mistaken, is obviously smarter than all of us and needs to impress us with his intellectual prowess. That may well alienate these voters.


The media will be ready to pounce on any verbal gaffe, but undecided voters will be much more forgiving if Bush recognizes his error, corrects it and quickly moves on. If Bush can demonstrate a sense of humor, clearly and passionately define his vision for the country and challenge Gore on his character shortcomings, he will keep his lead in the polls. *