||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: Presidential race may turn on education issue
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The contest between Democrat Vice President Al Gore and Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush may not be a stark ideological choice or a generational battle, but it gives every indication of being entertaining, hard-fought and close.
While Bush had more trouble wrapping up his nomination and fending off the criticisms of opponent Sen. John McCain than did Gore, the governor continues to run about even with the vice president, who should be benefiting from the strong economy and the public's general level of contentment.
Bush has been moving as quickly as possible back to the center, which is where he started. After his New Hampshire primary defeat, he was forced to rely on the votes of religious conservatives to win the GOP nomination. But that's not his natural core constituency (conservatives preferred him to McCain but didn't embrace him at first), nor was it his father's.
The governor continues to talk about education, a traditionally Democratic issue, but one that he has addressed during his years as governor. Polls suggest that the voters have confidence in Bush's ability to deal with education, and that gives him an advantage on a highly salient issue with which the rest of the Republican Party has had trouble.
Gore is behaving in some ways like the challenger, not the heir apparent to the White House.
The vice president has been criticizing Bush's performance in Texas, especially when it comes to education, but also on foreign policy and taxes. But Gore also complains that Bush has failed to agree to a series of debates, as well as to the vice president's challenge to exclude "soft money" from party spending.
Gore has been much more aggressive than Bush recently, criticizing the Republican's proposals and record and complaining about the Republican Congress' inaction on issues, including gun control.
Bush, in contrast, merely repeats his "big tent" message and promises to spend more money and time on improving education. While he may still be telling conservatives privately what they want to hear, his broader message isn't about ideology, Bill Clinton, Elian Gonzalez or abortion. It's about cooperation and consensus, helping people, and bringing respect back to the office of the presidency.
How long with Gore and Bush keep up their approaches? It's hard to tell, but Bush has no reason to become more confrontational any time in the near future. Gore, on the other hand, is still looking for wedge issues to use against Bush.
Most Americans simply aren't spending a lot of time comparing and contrasting the two major party hopefuls, so it's probably a waste of time for either candidate to waste a potentially valuable weapon that could better be used in the fall. But Gore's success during the primaries in taking on Bradley probably is encouraging him to adopt the same aggressive stance against Bush.
Democrats are hoping that the Republicans will repeat past errors and launch a major investigation into the Elian Gonzalez case.
Conservatives surely would like to investigate Attorney General Janet Reno's handling of the issue and the government's taking of the child from his Miami relatives. It could be another way to embarrass the president.
But, as with impeachment, most Americans would rather start to put the whole incident behind them. A long set of congressional hearings would only allow Democrats to chastise the Republicans for "playing politics" with the child and for preferring to score political points against Clinton, Reno and Gore rather than deal with substantive issues such as guns, Social Security, a prescription drug benefit under Medicare and campaign finance reform.
Indeed, if the Republicans were to push for lengthy hearings, they would not only weaken Bush's position against Gore, they would likely significantly lower their chances for maintaining control of the House of Representatives in the fall.
For now, Bush deserves to feel relieved that he weathered the McCain storm and is able to return to his centrist message. And Gore knows that he righted his campaign after an early rocky start. The next few months will see both campaigns looking for an advantage, but the real fight won't start until the conventions get under way in late July and August.