AUSTIN, Texas —Even though George W. Bush is in an uphill fight for his political life, he retains significant advantages and still has a good chance to win, says a University of Texas at Austin expert on presidential politics.
Dr. Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government who is quoted weekly in newspapers around the country, said there still are enough big opportunities ahead and plenty of time to break open a close race. He suggests that Bush make leadership — and his willingness to work more effectively with Congress to hammer out bipartisan solutions — more of a campaign issue.
“Despite mistakes and malapropisms, Bush has not been redefined in the public mind as an incompetent lightweight who’s not ready for prime time,” said Buchanan, in a recent talk before the UT Austin Liberal Arts Foundation Advisory Council. “Polls show that Bush still has the edge on leadership and change. These advantages have not gone away, and they could still make the difference in the right circumstances.”
Another reason Bush can still win is because there is a bigger than usual group of undecided voters. “A fourth to a third of the voters — many of them swing voters in battleground states — have not yet made up their minds.” Also, said Buchanan, there still is plenty of time to create a winning ad campaign, and the debates have yet to unfold. “Sometimes, the debates do little to affect the outcome, but other times — as in 1960 or 1980 — they make a big difference.”
Buchanan is the author of several books on the U.S. Presidency, including The Presidential Experience, The Citizen’s Presidency, Electing a Presidentand Renewing Presidential Politics. A fifth book, titled Presidential Campaigns and American Democracy,is forthcoming. The UT professor, who teaches courses on the American presidency, says one reason reporters call him so frequently is because he is nonpartisan in his viewpoints.
Campaign 2000 is a bigger deal in Austin than any other presidential campaign ever has been primarily because “we’ve got a dog in the fight and until, very recently, the home boy looked like a sure winner. But then came the big change — the Democratic Convention — and when it was over, Bush had reason to proclaim himself what he remains: the underdog.
“The race is far from over, but the change in the dynamic was striking,” Buchanan said.
Gore closed the gap by solving his own problems, the UT political scientist added. “He chose Lieberman; he ditched Clinton; he kissed his wife; he solidified his base; and he changed the subject from likability to issues.” Then Bush extended the Gore bounce, Buchanan added, with some missteps and fumbles: “He fumbled the debates; he fumbled the early advertising; he dissed (New York Timesreporter) Adam Clymer; and he lost control of his message.”
Recently, Bush has made several minor changes and one major change in an effort to get himself back on track, said Buchanan. “They had to do something dramatic, and many of the changes make sense,” he said. The major change, Buchanan added, involves highlighting issues in a new, more comparative and aggressive way — “fighting Gore head-to-head on the issues.”
Bush also made several minor changes including: Settling the debates to stop the bleeding; hitting the talk show circuit to remind female voters of his charm — rekindling the personality wars; and pitching a new “real plans for real people” slogan.
“It’s always good to fight back with tough rhetoric to show that you haven’t quit, and intend to rally the troops and recapture the lead,” said Buchanan. “And, of course, it is necessary to talk issues, if only to show that you have a policy vision.”
But, said Buchanan, the Bush camp thinks that just talking issues is not enough. They believe that they have no choice but to attack Gore’s strength and try to take his issue advantage away from him. “That’s why they have framed their issues initiative as an effort to prove that Bush positions are better than Gore’s for the middle class.
“It’s gutsy. And, it’s risky because it highlights a Bush weakness and a Gore strength: People prefer Gore’s positions on their priority concerns of health care, social security reform and education. This makes it a tough sell for Bush.”