When Only a Party Line Divides Front-Runners Al Gore and George W. Bush Echo Each Other as They Seek

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Has anyone ever seen them in the same place at the same time?

Maybe Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are the same person. Or at least it seems that way at times, as the two major parties' new standard-bearers crisscross the US, sounding strikingly similar themes in their pitches to voters.

For the Republican Bush, his mantra of "compassionate conservatism" can sound a lot like the Democratic Gore's "practical idealism." Both men propose enlisting faith-based groups to help solve America's toughest social ills. Yet both also believe government can be a positive force for change - a major departure particularly for Mr. Bush, whose party in recent years has sought to minimize government's role, if not to eliminate it altogether. Overall, both speak in the gauzy, nonideological language of family values, responsibility, and opportunity. They rarely identify themselves as "Republican" or "Democrat." "They're not identical twins, but certainly they're fraternal twins," says Ross Baker, a political analyst at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Skipping the primaries In a way, the two leading candidates are leaping over the primary process - acting as if they've already won their parties' nominations - and going straight for the general election, which is usually a battle for the center. There are good reasons, analysts say. The two campaigns and parties have read the polls and run focus groups: They know the public is tired of the sharp partisanship of recent years that shut down the government and came to full fruition during President Clinton's impeachment trial. And with no major national crises to contend with or burning demands from the public, both men can afford to dish up feel-good rhetoric. Some conservative magazines have declared "the end of ideology." For politicos who welcome a good debate over substantive issues, the lack of real red meat in the campaign is cause for dismay. "We have two candidates here from two different parties that traditionally disagree on the big-ticket visceral items - race quotas, immigration, taxes, crime, homosexual rights," says Jay Severin, a Republican consultant from New York who is not working for Bush. "Now we have them both morphing into each other." If Bush is in the middle of a "brilliant marketing move" that broadens and redefines conservatism, and that ultimately strengthens the GOP's hold on Congress and captures the White House, says Mr. Severin, then no one can argue with it. But he worries about a campaign that's driven more by celebrity than by issues, calling it "undemocratic." Bush, for his part, maintains he'll get more specific with proposals as time goes on. Still, there's a school of thought among some Republicans that says why mess with a winning strategy: In polls, Bush is way ahead of any challengers for the Republican nomination and maintains a comfortable double-digit lead over Gore in general-election matchups. …