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Gore's Huge Turnaround Bodes Well for November
by Dana Chasin

It may all end in tears, but Democratic Presidential nominee Al Gore has managed an extraordinary 20-point turnaround in the national polls in the span of three weeks and suddenly appears to have Gov. George W. Bush on the defensive and struggling to articulate a rationale for his candidacy. How did this happen? Can it be sustained?

A number of factors explain the turnaround. First, Bush’s “bounce” of about 6-8 points immediately following the GOP convention gave him a lead in some polls of as much as 17-19 percent.

Second, Gore’s selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate – making Lieberman the first Jew on a national ticket -- galvanized Gore’s campaign and lent it the air of a “cause,” almost a Jackie Robinson moment for some. Practically no one had expected this or even thought it possible from Gore.

Third, the Democratic convention in Los Angeles and Gore’s acceptance speech appeared more grounded in reality (both the reality of America’s current all-time record eight consecutive years of economic expansion and of the need to address the inequitable distribution of the fruits of prosperity, especially for minorities) than did the rhetoric and staging of the GOP convention in Philadelphia.

Vice President Gore came away from Los Angeles with his own 6-8 point bounce, leaving him virtually tied in the polls with Bush, that is, within the margin of error [3 to 4 points either way].

But Gore has finally taken a lead stretching well beyond the margin of error in the two weeks since the convention. As the electorate has moved on from the “getting-to-know-you” phase of the campaign, it has begun to focus more on the issues, the candidates’ positions, and their ability to govern. Here is where Gore had hoped the race would turn, and it has.

During the Democratic convention, the Gore campaign had said that it hoped that the race would be tied by Labor Day, giving Gore the opportunity to pull ahead in October, when the debates are likely to occur. In fact, the campaign has exceeded its own expectations.

In a new Newsweek poll conducted August 30 and 31, Gore jumped out to a 49-39 percent lead in a four-way race. Ralph Nader of the Green Party drew three percent and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, one percent. In a two-way race, Gore leads Bush by 12 points, 53 to 41 percent. Gore had trailed Bush by 10 points, 48-38, in the previous Newsweek poll taken August 10-11.

Is Gore’s lead momentary or sustainable, bounce or traction? A large number of surveys by different organizations will appear next week and if they confirm the Gore lead, Bush's prospects for the November 7 election will certainly look significantly darker.

The Newsweek poll contained bad news for Bush across the board. Gore led on most key issues, including the economy and jobs, Social Security, health care, education, and even on “upholding moral values,” where he led by a 44-37 percent, reversing Bush’s 43-38 advantage last week. Bush scored better on national defense, but led here only by three points. On providing a prescription drug benefit for older Americans, Gore had a massive lead of 58-26 percent. Gore had a 20-point lead among women, was about even with Bush among men, and had a 20-point lead among those 50 and over, half of the electorate, whose voting rates are significantly higher than those age 18-49.

Most ominously for Bush, 50 percent of those questioned say Gore would do a better job managing the economy, compared with 35 percent for Bush. Gore even leads 44 to 39 on the topic of taxes.

Without popular support on the issues of morality and the economy, traditional GOP strengths (together with national defense), not much sustains the Bush campaign’s rationale.

If the Vice President’s lead is indeed sustainable, the debates give him a chance to cement his lead or increase it to the point where Bush falls irreversibly behind.

The remaining pillars available to Gov. Bush are few. He is left to rely principally on supposed “Clinton fatigue” and the presumed desire of Americans to see the projected budget surplus returned to them through Bush’s proposed massive tax cut of $1.8 trillion over ten years.

Gore’s declaration in Los Angeles that he “is his own man,” re-enforcing a point made in his choice of a running mate who was the first Democrat to attack President Clinton for his personal conduct in office, has done much to dissociate him from Clinton. And Bush’s tax cut proposal has not resonated with voters, unconvinced that the cut, which would in any event go mostly to the most affluent, is worth endangering the boom by igniting inflation.

The more Bush has to defend the tax cut, the more voters will ask themselves whether they really want it, whether it would endanger the economy and whether it would leave enough money for, say, schools, the more the issue becomes a liability for Bush. By separating himself enough from Clinton and by choosing the unmistakably spiritual Joe Lieberman as his running mate, Gore offered his own answer to the moral pillar.

But this could be a case of peaking too soon. A campaign capable of trying to portray Bush as "A Reformer with Results" when he was threatened by Senator John McCain's reformist crusade will no doubt respond to Gore's parries. But Gore's surge and Bush's defensiveness are not the accidents of one solid speech, a few verbal miscues. Polls now show that Gore has the major issues on his side, that it's his race to lose.

History favors Gore’s chances. No Presidential candidate with a lead outside the margin of error on Labor Day has lost the election since Gov. Thomas Dewey led President Truman by eight points on Labor Day, 1948, when polling was so unscientific that Truman’s five-point win came as a stunning surprise.

DANA CHASIN is President of the Empire State Democratic Initiative, a statewide membership organization providing opportunities to younger citizens of New York State to participate in the political process.