Bush camp displaying 'tempered' confidence

Cites gains with women, sees obstacles for Gore

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 10/24/2000

ASHINGTON - Entering the final two weeks of the presidential campaign, aides to George W. Bush are increasingly confident that they have met their strategic objectives for beating Al Gore. But the reasons for the bullishness in the Bush camp have little to do with the Texas governor's standing in the much-hyped ''horse race'' polls, which Republican operatives said can be misleading.

Instead, the Bush campaign finds comfort in a quartet of less-noticed trends: Bush continues to show increasing strength among women, erasing some of the gender gap with Gore. Green Party nominee Ralph Nader is hurting the vice president in some key states. Gore is spending increasing time and money in a defensive posture, campaigning in states he had hoped to sew up long ago. And, Gore has written off much of the South.

Yesterday, in what may be partly an effort to unnerve Gore, the Bush campaign for the first time began spending heavily on television ads in Tennessee, Gore's home state, and in Minnesota, usually a reliably Democratic bastion. Gore, meanwhile, spent yesterday campaigning in Oregon and Washington, where Nader is taking votes away in a traditionally Democratic region.

''Our confidence is high, it's strong, but it is tempered because there are 15 days to go,'' Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday.

Of course, it is the job of spokespeople for Bush and Gore to say things are going in their favor. Gore aides have said the vice president is doing better since his performance in the third debate, and that he is well financed as he approaches the last stage of the race. As Gore backers note, most of the recent polls have been within the margin of error.

''The other side is trying to hold the ball, run out the clock and hide behind tracking polls,'' Gore said yesterday. ''But you know what, those tracking polls have a way of closing up.''

The latest Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby national tracking poll showed the margin between Gore and Bush narrowing to a 2 percentage-point gap, well within the margin of error. The previous release of the poll Sunday had indicated a four-point spread. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, which had been recording a statistically significant Bush lead, also tightened to 2 percentage points yesterday.

Still, at the very least, an examination of why the Bush camp is so confident just weeks after trailing Gore in the national polls by a substantial margin provides a window into the mindset of the Texas governor and into the inner workings of his campaign.

For starters, Bush aides said, the national polls will continue to gyrate wildly and should be largely ignored. While much has been made of the undecided ''swing voters,'' they are not the only reason for the swings in the polls. As Gore aides are eager to stress, Bush's lead is somewhat exaggerated in some national polls because the governor is so far ahead in his home state of Texas and in many Western states. That skews the numbers in Bush's favor.

Far more important than national surveys, according to the Bush aides, is Bush's standing in several crucial states. Last month, some political analysts thought Gore was pulling away in battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Now, however, the race is fairly even in all of those states. And Gore's lead has slipped in California and Illinois, two other states the vice president thought he had wrapped up. While the Bush campaign is not yet spending money on ads in those two states, that could happen soon, if the trend holds. The Republican National Committee is already devoting resources to California.

''It would be impossible not to feel good today,'' said Ron Kaufman, political director for President Bush and adviser to the governor. ''If you go across the country, every one of these races is marginally better for us. None of it is dramatic, and you can't say a huge wave is coming our way like in 1980, but it's more than a ripple.''

Much attention was paid a month ago to Gore's unexpected strength in Florida, where the polls showed the race about even. Since then, Bush has regained his strength and the Gore campaign has begun pumping more money into the state.

Nationally, Florida is the only state that was supposed to be reliably Republican in which Bush is waging an unexpected fight.

Gore is fighting in states that he hoped to have solidly on his side, including Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Minnesota.

Gore's decision to write off much of the South has also played into Bush's hands. While few expected Gore to do well in Deep South states such as Alabama or Mississippi, he has been competitive for much of the year in Kentucky, North Carolina and Georgia. But the Gore campaign, fearing it would lose those states in the end, has preferred to focus resources on Florida and the Midwestern battleground states.

Now, Gore is on the defensive in two Southern states he had hoped to win, Tennessee and Arkansas. As a Southerner, Gore has extensive ties to the region, but so does Bush, as governor of Texas and as the son of former president Bush, who was strong in much of the South.

By most measures, Bush has become stronger partly as a result of his performance in the three presidential debates. The Bush camp deliberately kept expectations as low as possible, and then benefited when the governor held his own. Gore, meanwhile, strived to find his most effective voice, which the vice president has said he accomplished only in the last debate.

For Bush, this resurgence is not the result of some new-fangled strategy, but instead is the result of a yearlong effort to remain consistently on the same message, assuring voters that he is a ''compassionate conservative.'' The intentionally murky theme was designed to reassure conservatives and moderates. While Bush and Gore have real differences over how to handle Social Security, prescription drug coverage, and other matters, the two men are competing at a time when no single issue is dominating the national stage.

Much of Bush's strategy has been aimed at reassuring voters that he can handle the rigors of the Oval Office. While few politicians are elected on the basis of endorsements, the Bush campaign has placed a high priority on having Bush appear with fellow Republican governors and with popular national figures such as retired General Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Bush's endgame strategy is clear from his efforts in recent days to woo women and to whip up enthusiasm among local organizations. The campaign has launched a ''W stands for Women'' tour featuring Bush's mother, and a ''Barnstorm for Reform'' blitz by Bush and his fellow GOP governors.

The Gore campaign has plenty of reason to have its own brand of confidence. At the end of the day, Gore aides said, voters who are comfortable with the current prosperity will support the vice president. Moreover, Gore aides said they are conducting a massive get-out-the-vote drive that includes a hoped-for large turnout of blacks and union members.

The Gore campaign is on the attack, sending out surrogates such as Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska to charge that Bush is not competent enough to be president.