Cheney's week of gaffes harms Bush campaign

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The Independent US

With George W Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, lurching from one public relations disaster to another, senior figures in the Republican Party are growing increasingly nervous about their ability to halt Vice-President Al Gore's rise in opinion polls, and restore credibility to their faltering presidential campaign.

With George W Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, lurching from one public relations disaster to another, senior figures in the Republican Party are growing increasingly nervous about their ability to halt Vice-President Al Gore's rise in opinion polls, and restore credibility to their faltering presidential campaign.

This week, Mr Bush plans to spend more time with "real people" in an effort to offset the damage caused by his gratuitous insult last week of a New York Times reporter - picked up by television microphones - and by his clumsy attempts to duck out of televised presidential debates.

Mr Cheney, meanwhile, is likely to stay as far out of sight as possible after a particularly catastrophic week in which it was revealed he has not bothered to vote in 14 of the last 16 elections in Texas, where he has been registered, and the oil company he has headed for the past five years, Halliburton, was exposed for its policy of segregated lavatories - one lot for Americans, another for foreigners - at its overseas operations.

While Mr Gore and his running mate, Joe Lieberman, have looked buoyant, relaxed and gaffe-free, Mr Bush and Mr Cheney have looked increasingly defensive and hollow. Confronted on his failure to vote in other people's elections, including Mr Bush's Republican primary last March, Mr Cheney lamely said he had "travelled a great deal" and focused his attention on global issues. (As the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd suggested: "If you want votes, cast votes.")

Having already got into trouble for his lavish stock option package from Halliburton, Mr Cheney then claimed ignorance of the segregated lavatories policy - even though it has been the subject of noisy complaints from employees. Overall, his stilted, hushed delivery style has proved a campaign stump kiss of death - the only blessing being that many audiences cannot hear his worst stumblings.

Although poll numbers remain close, the race is unmistakably moving Mr Gore's way. He is holding on to his narrow overall lead and is gaining strength in key states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida. In one ABC/Washington Post survey, he was shown to be drawing level on such character issues as integrity and likeability, which Mr Bush considers his strongest assets and his opponent's biggest liabilities.

In the next few days, Mr Bush is expected to agree to at least two of the three televised encounters previously mooted by the official debates commission. Last week, he set three completely different dates, in less high-profile settings, and then accused his opponent of bad faith for refusing to concede to them. With the strategy damaging his own credibility more than Mr Gore's, however, he backed down.

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