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Jewish World Review August 8, 2000 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5760

Roger Simon

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To lead -- and save -- America -- PHILADELPHIA | Like two avenging angels, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have burst forth from this city and onto the land propelled by the force of a unified party, a taut campaign organization, and a carefully calibrated message that has created a gulf in the polls.

Brimming with a confidence Republicans haven't seen in over a decade, the two headed toward the supposed Democratic stronghold of California -- where next week Al Gore will see if he can blunt their surge.

Bush and Cheney are making clear that they seek not only to lead America, but to save it. In twin speeches before the Republican convention that were notable for their appeals to the heart as well as kicks to the shins, the two outlined what they said was the problem -- a nation materially well off but in other ways bankrupt -- and proposed the solution: them.

A GOP tracking poll showed Bush going into the convention with a 13-point lead over Gore and leaving it with an 18-point advantage. An NBC News poll taken immediately after the speech showed Bush up by 11 points, as compared with a 6-point lead the week before.

The press, whose praise and criticism is often poll-driven, gushed over Bush's speech.

Even former Clinton White House aide George Stephanopoulos, now with ABC, was forced to say: "They believe that they have elected a president tonight. I don't know if that's true, but it was a pretty magnificent speech."

"It is his election to lose," Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson said of Bush. "I don't think Al Gore can win it, but I think Bush can lose it."

Though the convention produced no news -- and television viewership may turn out to be a record low -- the real Philadelphia story was how Bush has taken charge of and transformed the Republican Party.

"Bush is determined that there be only one Republican Party and that it be his," one senior adviser said.

Thompson said: "I've never seen a candidate control a convention like this one. This is not just a Bush campaign, it is a Bush Republican Party right now."

Bush has not only taken over the mechanics of the party, but he has also accomplished the tougher task of changing its tone. Put simply, it's not your father's Republican Party anymore.

For the first time in a long time, obeisance to the image and philosophy of Ronald Reagan has not dominated a Republican convention.

"George Bush has moved the Republican Party to be a much more conservative-to-moderate party," says Thompson. "How far will he continue to move it? I hope a long ways. Government can be a tremendous force for good." The trap of the modern convention, however, is to slap oneself on the back for successfully preaching to the converted.

Bush now has three things he must establish by Election Day: likability, authenticity and mastery of issues. (And his campaign figures if he does well enough on the first two, he can finesse the third.)

As to likability, the campaign believes it has that one in the bag. "He is a the-glass-is-half-full guy," says Don Evans, his campaign chairman. "People are attracted to that."

Joe Allbaugh, Bush's campaign manager, says: "He's a disciplined and focused individual, and at the same time he's fun to be around. Everyone in America would love to have this fellow over for dinner, iced tea, a beer."

Bush and Cheney are now taking their chemistry on the road to preach among the unconverted. If Bush's first test was his vice presidential choice and his second the convention speech, he will soon face his third: debating Al Gore in October. "He is doing debate prep and has been doing it for a while," a senior aide says. "We are getting him engaged." Says chief strategist Karl Rove, "Our debate strategy can be summed up in one word: Survive."

That's called lowering expectations.

But least one pollster sees trouble ahead for Bush.

"Bill Clinton can give Al Gore a 10-point bounce with his speech at the Democratic convention," pollster John Zogby said. "If that happens, Gore and Bush could be tied by Labor Day. This year we are seeing a great campaign. This is Kennedy vs. Nixon. And the Bush problem is that they are real cocky bastards. They think this is all locked up. It isn't."

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate