ANALYSIS: Election 2000 - Blunders aside, Bush campaign is winner Regardless of the result of the presidential election, George W Bush ran the better focused campaign, political PR people tell Melinda Wittstock.

Let's face it: no one can claim either presidential candidate ran an all-inspiring knockout campaign when the race for the White House is still on a knife edge on voting day.

Let's face it: no one can claim either presidential candidate ran an all-inspiring knockout campaign when the race for the White House is still on a knife edge on voting day.

Let's face it: no one can claim either presidential candidate ran an all-inspiring knockout campaign when the race for the White House is still on a knife edge on voting day.

But one thing all the partisan pollsters, pundits and political PRs could agree on by PRWeek's press time midday Tuesday is that if Al Gore has managed to drop the 'vice' of the past eight years and keep the 'president' in his title for the next four, it won't have been because of his campaign.

Democrats are sighing with utter disbelief about how a highly-qualified incumbent who has helped preside over an unprecedented economic boom in peacetime - not to mention the lowest crime and welfare rates in 20 years - could not manage to surge well ahead of a relatively inexperienced man with an arguably tenuous grasp of national olicy and an undisputed talent for malapropism and word-mangling.

'For Democrats, the best part of the campaign has been George W. Bush's zany zigging and zagging among the land mines of the English language, argues Bob Herbert in The New York Times. 'Bush's missteps with the language are about the only things that have been fun for Democrats in this campaign.'

Perhaps Al Gore's gravest mistake was to underestimate George W. Bush.

'There's nothing stupid about letting yourself be underestimated,' says Jim Innocenzi of Sandler Innocenzi, a political advertising and media strategy firm on the Republican side.

'Bush wanted it that way; he's smart enough to know all Americans love the underdog. Gore was marketed as the 'great debater' who would wipe the floor with Bush. The bar was set so low for Bush that whatever you think about substance or his grasp of policy detail, all he had to do to win the debates was stand up and remember his name, as he joked with David Letterman. But Bush did much more than that, and Gore let him.'

This race, just about everyone agrees, was Gore's to lose. But whether Gore wins or loses to the Texas governor, he has failed to hammer home his best issue - the economy - and allowed his Republican opponent to set the agenda, even steal his centrist Democratic clothes.

'PR 101 for politicians - define your opponent before he defines himself, and define yourself before your opponent tries to define you,' says Greg Mueller, a Republican PR strategist with Creative Response Concepts.

'Bush accomplished both those things: he defined himself a year ago as a compassionate conservative and seized traditional Democratic turf, education for instance,' Mueller continues.

'Meanwhile, right out of the box he defined Gore as a big government liberal, even though Gore is part of a centrist administration that shed that liberal label a long time ago. Bush has put Gore on the defense and set the campaign agenda. He has portrayed Gore as close to Clinton when it comes to lying, but not at all like Clinton when it comes to issues.'

Many Democrats are quietly seething that their man has not exploited all the successes of the Clinton years, a heritage he rightly could have claimed as his own without, they say, being tarnished by all the scandal.

'If the Gore campaign fails,' says Senator Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), 'historians will probably conclude that there should have been an attempt to make this a third Clinton administration rather than a new beginning.'

They also question why Gore hasn't reminded voters of the fierce partisanship of the Republican Congress, letting Bush use his 'uniter, not a divider' mantra, while hiding the Republicans' role in blocking popular Democratic legislation behind his affable smile.

'I just don't know why Gore hasn't nailed Bush on this,' says Karl Struble, a Democratic media consultant with Stuble Opel Communications. Bush gained the edge with 'a simpler message delivered in a more focused way.' He relentlessly stayed on message, painting broad brush strokes and coasting on his more affable character, says Struble.

'I wish Gore was a better messenger, but he lacks informality and he seems too handled,' Struble says. 'He appeared to be listening to the media too much after every debate - always tacking, looking for the wind. But he should have stayed in one place like Bush, and let the wind look for him.

'The best campaigns set out a course and never deviate, and that is what team Bush has done. The Texas governor has repeated the same simple messages over and over again, and whatever the veracity of his claims, Americans respond to a clear message.'

The vice president likes to say the race for the presidency shouldn't be a popularity contest, but personality has become an undeniable calculus of politics, like it or not.

'Personality will be what does it for Bush,' says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. 'A kiss put Gore back into the race; heavy breathing took him out of it. Bush is more accessible, and if Gore loses, it will be because the American people don't want to invite him into their living rooms for the next four years.'

But many on the Democratic side believe the media is at least partly to blame for putting Gore on the defensive.

'The media's approach to Bush's misrepresentations, as opposed to those of Al Gore, has been notably sotto voce, even though it seems to me that Bush's have been a good deal more substantial than Gore's,' Washington Monthly editor Charlie Peters told Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post, the day before the election. 'The unfortunate result of all this is that Gore's credibility rating in the polls has plummeted.'

Similarly The Nation's political editor Eric Alterman said: 'The media have given Bush a pass on pretty much everything that matters in a president.

Reporters have simply assumed the enormous policy differences between Gore and Bush to be of trivial importance ... while the media was focusing on 'Bush the dummy' and 'Gore the liar', reporters did not notice that Bush had a far more serious credibility problem than the vice president.'

In fact, a new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that Bush gained nearly twice as many positive stories on television, in newspapers and on the Internet.

Blame the messenger or not, it is curious why Bush's misrepresentations of his own policies - not to mention his arguably Clintonesque approach to that drunk driving conviction - hasn't stuck. Bush, somehow, is seen as the more honest, straight-talking candidate.

'It hasn't stuck because people just aren't paying attention to the issues this time around,' says Bruce Buchanan, Professor of Government and Presidential Politics at University of Texas in Austin.

'Bush doesn't come across so much like a politician - he's less often caught changing his stripes, and Gore, by being so eager to tell you what you want to hear, appears much more like a politician.'

Perhaps that's why the most dramatic moment of the race - the unearthed DWI- did not appear to affect Bush's standing in the polls. Gore had many chances to put Bush on the defensive and off-message Friday and Saturday, and the issue should have undercut Bush's widely playing commercial about personal responsibility and his vision of a land where people must all be accountable for their actions. But once more, Bush appears to have neutralized the damage by pinning it on Gore as a 'dirty trick'.

So by Election Day, and after a weekend in which Al Gore finally appeared to take criticism to heart and campaign more effectively, the definition of campaign success in the closest presidential race of modern American history was all down to 'get out the vote machines' and the weather.

And those pesky Nader Raiders.

Melinda Wittstock is the host of The Way In, a new morning newsmagazine being launched by National Public Radio on January 2, 2001.



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