GOING HEAD TO HEAD; in the First of Three Articles on the Political Scene in the United States, Political Editor Jason Beattie Looks at the Two Contenders for the Presidency, Al Gore and George W Bush
Beattie, Jason BeattiePolitical Jason, The Birmingham Post (England)
'Gore or Bush, who is going to win?' For two weeks I cris-crossed the United States asking this one question to anyone who could be bothered to listen (more than 100 million people failed to vote at the last Presidential election) and the answer was always the same: it is too close to call.
Republican sympathisers would tell me Bush will win but by only a couple of points, Democrats had Gore ahead by the same margin and the non-partisans sat firmly on the picket fence and refused to place their bets.
The only other consensus was the opinion polls, which are giving Bush a lead of between 11 and 16 points, but they should be treated with caution.
Unlike in Britain the American electorate is ruthlessly fickle. At this stage in 1988 Michael Dukakis, perhaps the most uninspiring of recent Democratic candidates, had a 20 point lead over George Bush senior. In 1992 the same Bush (they are a flowering political dynasty) had a 22 point lead over Bill Clinton.
The Republicans and the Democrats may have their differences but they both agree this election is far from over. A few negative advertisements, a poor showing by George 'Dubya' Bush (Dubya is how the Texans pronounce the letter W) in the televised debates and decent Democratic convention next week could tilt the balance back in Gore's favour.
Even so, the election is Bush's to lose. Although a political novice compared with Gore, George W has some clear advantages over his rival.
First and foremost he is in possession of the most valuable and most elusive of all political weapons: a message. Forget the nitty-gritty of policies, in the sophisticated techniques of American electioneering the essential ingredient for a successful campaign is to have an unsophisticated message that is easily understood by the electorate.
In Bush's case it is compassionate conservatism, a combination of the Republican traditions of low taxes and basic values merged with an inclusive platform of civil liberties, pro-education and minority interests.
The convention in Philadelphia was carefully orchestrated to convey this new, tolerant party. Delegates were treated to a succession of speakers from the minorities, including General Colin Powell and Congressman Jim Kolbe, the only openly gay Republican politician.
Bush has also courted the Hispanic vote, emphasising the point that he can speak Spanish and ensuring his official campaign website is bilingual.
The game plan is to steal the middle ground, so successfully occupied by Bill Clinton, back from the Democrats.
It is generally assumed 40 per cent of the electorate will always vote Republican and 40 per cent will always vote Democrat so presidential elections are won or lost depending on which way the final 20 per cent will decide to vote. As this 20 per cent contain the plethora of minority interests - soccer mums, gays, blacks, hispanics, seniors etc - every effort is made to ensure they are represented by the party.
The key test for the Bush campaign, and one which he seems to be passing, is whether these minorities truly believe the Republicans have changed from being a right-wing sect into a rainbow alliance.
Democrats, bemused at the cheek with which Bush has stolen their clothes, have been desperate to point out the gulf between the Republican's cosy new image and the actions of the hard-core supporters.
Although you may not have been able to tell from the sympathetic television coverage, 93 per cent of the delegates at the Convention were white and a lot of them were uncomfortable with the call for inclusivity.
Gen Powell's rallying cry for affirmative action was booed and Congressman Kolbe's speech was boycotted by several Texan delegates, while those who stayed to listen pointedly stood in prayer. …