In the closest contest in decades, just where do the differences lie?

The gaffe-prone Texas governor was surviving the long campaign - until a 24-year-old conviction for drink-driving came to light. What effect will it have?
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The Independent US

What is it that sets apart a politician who looks a winner - at least before a minor 24-year-old conviction for drunken driving is revealed and gives the media a whiff of a long-denied feeding frenzy? Is it a certain quiet swagger in the walk, an easy confidence with himself and what he says, the ability to project the inner certainty that he is destined to prevail?

What is it that sets apart a politician who looks a winner - at least before a minor 24-year-old conviction for drunken driving is revealed and gives the media a whiff of a long-denied feeding frenzy? Is it a certain quiet swagger in the walk, an easy confidence with himself and what he says, the ability to project the inner certainty that he is destined to prevail?

Until word came to light of a misdemeanour near the family home in Maine back in 1976, when a fellow called Gerald Ford was president, the answer in the case of George W Bush was: all of the above. At political rallies you quickly learn to detect the odour of impending defeat. You sense the dissembled desperation of the candidate and the over-hysterical applause of the faithful, trying to will him over a bar set too high.

But attend one of Dubya's events, and there is none of this. In Detroit last month, in Missouri last week, despite the wild enthusiasm of the crowds, Bush was the epitome of calmness. Too calm, perhaps. He believes he's ahead on points: the routine now, to mix a couple more of the sports metaphors he loves, is to use the stretch to run down the clock.

The truth is that until Thursday they hadn't laid a glove on him for months: not Al Gore in debate, the forum in which he is supposed to be the master; not the Democrats' "opposition research department," as the backroom sleaze-diggers are politely known; not even a self-inflicted wound caused by the wounds the governor himself inflicts upon the English language.

And over the past few weeks, his confidence on the hustings has visibly grown. In vain you search for gaffes. Veteran students of the hilarious way with words of Bush pÿre et fils are pleasantly astounded.

Sure, the George W the public sees is heavily scripted, but the son who once exceeded his father in verbal ineptitude is no more. Dyslexia; what dyslexia? No longer do such constructions as "My education programme will resignate among all parents" and "quotas vulcanise society" dot his answers. It's enough to have you missing George Senior, for whom "furry guys" were microphones (not to be confused with "furry feathered guys," an endangered species of northwestern owl).

Of course Dubya is no rocket scientist, as attested by his famous definition of a budget: "It's clearly a budget, it's got a lot of numbers in it" or the Bush first rule of diplomacy: "A key to foreign policy is to rely on reliance", a concept which will amuse those clever men in the chancelleries of Europe.

But the clichés now are delivered with an aplomb that even Al Gore in full bulldog mode could not seriously disturb over three debates. With his folksy optimism and all-purpose patriotism, Bush recalls Ronald Reagan, still the most venerated figure among modern Republicans, victor in two of the biggest White House landslides this century. Unlike Mr Gore, who changes his persona from week to week and seems totally sincere in none of them, with Mr Bush what you see is what you get.

Of course, the latest revelations may change all this. They are bound to reinforce the image of Bush as a sort of Texan Bertie Wooster, an amiable dunce who as a student was arrested with some friends for a rowdy college prank, and then, at a more Woosterish age of 30, was pulled in and fined for driving after a few beers too many.

So is he the fine upstanding character he says he is, or just a spoilt brat who never grew up? Might there be other more serious offences, still concealed? Not only has he laid himself open to the sometimes fatal charge of hypocrisy, accusing Mr Gore now of dishonesty when for 24 years he has kept quiet about this particular sin of his own. Perhaps the Democrats' accusation will now stick: that, even with an army of Jeeveses at his disposal, Mr Bush is simply not up to the job. On Tuesday will we learn the answer.

Right now, however, his audiences will have none of it. To say that Republicans are hungry for a winner is an understatement. The very air aches with their yearning; their every choreographed cheer, the happiness that exudes from their faces suggest they think they've found one, and - better still - one who reminds them of Reagan.

Bush's political strength is that even when he's aiming low blows at Gore, he still seems a nice guy. Listen to him and it could be the Gipper himself. "Our priority is our faith, our family, and the country we love, the great country of America." Clichés all, but clichés - and a "November surprise" like the one from the court records in Kennebunkport - are all that is left for this sort of campaign, when every issue has long since been done to death.

Firing up the already converted will change few minds. But in a drab, tight election it does make a difference. Getting out the vote will be what matters, and Democrats are demonstrably less enthusiastic about Gore than Republicans are about Bush. That factor could make the difference.

In the end, the contest remains a toss-up. Wisely, Bush confronted the drink-driving issue within a couple of hours. Probably it will muddy the waters further, increasing the ranks of the undecided. And as Bush Senior once remarked apropos of one of his own campaigns, "It's no exaggeration to say the undecideds could go one way or the other." Dubya will know exactly what he meant.

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