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On style and substance, heading off toward November

Jill Dougherty

By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst

January 20, 2000
Web posted at: 12:10 p.m. EST (1710 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.


Bush

In this story:

Status quo, without the quo

Wild card: the national mood

Style and substance


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- There's something strange about the 2000 presidential campaign, just now formally getting under way with the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

Americans are in an extraordinarily positive frame of mind. According to a recent CNN-TIME poll, 80 percent believe things are going well in the country, a remarkably high figure.

Nevertheless, in many recent polls, Vice President Al Gore has been losing to the Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, often by a double-digit margin.

When things are going well in the country, the president's party should have no trouble retaining control of the White House. Why doesn't the strong U.S. economy appear to be paying off -- at least in these polls -- for the Democrats?

And look at the issues people tell pollsters they are most concerned about this year: education, health care, Social Security, Medicare, gun control. Those are all issues on which Democrats have a solid advantage, according to the polls. How can Gore be behind if the issues favor the Democrats?

The answer is that people, at this point, do not seem inclined to vote on the issues. They're looking at personal qualities, like character and style. And many appear to be looking for a change of leadership, not a change of direction.

Status quo, without the quo

The 2000 presidential race is nothing like the 1980 election -- when the voters turned Jimmy Carter out of office after one term, or the 1992 election -- when they did the same thing to George Bush.

In those elections, Americans were deeply dissatisfied with the way things were going in the country (32 percent said things were going well in 1980 and 35 percent in 1992). In both instances, voters wanted a leader who offered something radically different.

Now, consider the fact that in the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, President Clinton's job approval rating is nearly 60 percent, but only about 30 percent say they have a favorable opinion of him "as a person."

Does that matter? You bet. Among voters who have an unfavorable opinion of Clinton personally, Gore's support drops sharply, even if they approve of the job Clinton is doing as president.

Call it "Clinton fatigue" if you wish. But it's clearly hurting Gore.

Wild card: the national mood

If you're a political analyst, the question you have to ask about any election is this: What do the voters want that they're not getting from the incumbent?

In 1960, after eight years of President Dwight Eisenhower, voters felt the country was slowing down. They feared the U.S. was losing the edge to the Soviet Union in technology and military power. Americans were looking for a leader who offered youth, dynamism and vigor. That was John F. Kennedy, who promised to "get the country moving again."

In 1968, the country was being torn apart by racial tension, student protest and the Vietnam War. Americans wanted an experienced professional who could bring order to the country. Richard Nixon won on a promise to "bring us together."

After Watergate, Americans desperately wanted morality. Jimmy Carter shrewdly read the national mood in 1976 and promised, "I will never lie to you." Carter's reputation for integrity remains intact. But by 1980, people wanted something they weren't getting from Carter. As president, he seemed to be wishy-washy and ineffectual. In 1980, the country yearned for strong, decisive leadership. Enter Ronald Reagan.

Walter Mondale ran against Reagan on "fairness" in 1984. That might have worked in the 1982 recession, but by 1984, when it was "morning in America," it was hard to convince Americans that the system wasn't fair.

In 1988, Michael Dukakis told the Democratic National Convention, "This election isn't about ideology. It's about competence." But Dukakis was running against Vice President George Bush, who had held almost every top job in Washington, and whose competence was not an issue.

By 1992, however, Bush was in deep trouble. The problem was empathy, his seeming inability to understand what ordinary Americans were going through in the recession. Bush appeared out of touch. Remember his apparent lack of familiarity with a supermarket scanner? Empathy was Bill Clinton's specialty. He felt your pain.

Clinton also had a weakness -- character. As early as 1992, exit polls showed that voters had doubts about Clinton's honesty and integrity. They took a gamble that Clinton could get the job done without creating a constitutional crisis. In 1996, the gamble seemed to have paid off. Bob Dole ran on the character issue. Dole's slogan: "A better man. For a better America." But that was before impeachment.

Now, after going through Clinton's impeachment ordeal, Americans take personal qualities a lot more seriously. That's why personal issues are thus far dominating this election.

Style and substance

George W. Bush offers an interesting take on the character issue. As he puts it, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." He's presenting himself to voters as man who has grown and matured, a hell-raiser saved by prayer.

Bush calls himself a "compassionate conservative." He doesn't push the kind of harsh, right-wing agenda voters associate with the GOP Congress -- an agenda that scares people. Bush comes across as a fraternity president, a laid-back, likeable guy not driven by politics.

Al Gore struggles to change his personal image from uptight to laid-back -- so far, without notable success. His strength isn't his personal appeal, it's his command of the issues.

So Democrats will try to get people to vote on the issues. And they'll warn people of what could happen if Republicans control everything -- the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Republicans will try to make the campaign as personal as possible. No heavy ideology. No "Contract with America."

American voters are being pulled in two directions this year. The personal factor favors the Republicans. The issues favor the Democrats. That means, once the nominees are settled, the 2000 presidential campaign has all the makings of a very close race.



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