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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: Can Bush win by 'going positive?'

PHILADELPHIA (CNN) -- Show me a candidate who promises to stick to positive campaign themes and swears not to "go negative" against his opponent, and I'll show you a candidate who either breaks his promise or loses the election.

Politics, after all, is a full-contact sport that requires both an offense and a defense. Without an offense, you can't create a contrast that gives voters a reason to support you over your opponent. And without a defense, you allow your opponent to define you, making you a far less credible and appealing alternative.

Political consultants never tire of telling their candidates that "an attack ignored is an attack believed." Indeed, one of the reasons former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley went down to defeat in his 2000 presidential bid is that he dismissed Vice President Al Gore's attacks as unbelievable and failed to defend himself aggressively.

But while Texas Gov. George W. Bush promises to run a different kind of campaign, based on an optimistic, upbeat message and devoid of unfair, negative attacks, I don't get the sense that he's really talking unilateral campaign disarmament. And so far, he has benefited from the impression (which may be correct or false, depending on your partisan point of view) that he's stayed positive, while Gore has "gone negative."

Recent history reinforces the view that Bush isn't particularly comfortable going on the attack. He was late in beating up on McCain in New Hampshire -- so late that when the Texas governor's attacks came, they looked desperate. Even worse, they proved ineffective.

When the Bush campaign concluded it had to hit McCain in South Carolina, Michigan, Virginia, New York and Ohio, it did. Sometimes, however, the attacks came from outside groups, as with TV ads in New York criticizing McCain's voting record on clean air, and telephone banks in Michigan and Virginia that made an issue of the senator's stance on abortion.

"The tendency during the campaign has been for Bush not to attack, or, if he was forced to attack, to go back positive as quickly as possible," one GOP insider told me.

But can Bush attack Gore, even in a response to criticism from the vice president's campaign, without looking hypocritical and conveying an impression to voters that he's just another politician? GOP strategists think so, as long as his responses are measured and the timing is right. And they see the task as a much easier one than when Bush needed to define McCain going into the New Hampshire primary.

"With McCain, you had to create negatives. But with Gore, you merely have to reinforce them," says Tom Rath, the outgoing Republican committeeman from New Hampshire and a Bush primary backer.

Much, of course, depends on how the candidates stand coming out of the two national conventions. If Bush establishes a considerable lead, Gore will find it hard not to continue his repeated attacks on the Republicans and their presidential nominee. That may help him draw issue contrasts with the Bush-Cheney ticket, but only at the expense of his own personal image.

However, if the race is close to a dead heat, as some Bush strategists expect, Gore will have the option of softening his tone.

Ultimately, it's hard to believe that this election will be devoid of the sort of sharp, ideological and personal attacks that have characterized presidential elections over the years. The question is whether Bush can continue to convey the impression that he is running a positive campaign, or whether voters (and the media) see him as just as negative as his opponent.

The more Bush draws a contrast between his campaign's style and Gore's, the more Republicans will also remind voters what they don't like about the vice president and the Clinton administration.


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