Gore targets Bush as `Mr Moneybags'

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The Independent Online
WITH HIS poll-ratings and fund-raising still in the doldrums, Vice-President Al Gore is to refocus his presidential campaign on his chief Republican rival, George W Bush, and go for the "jugular". But the Gore camp will not be trying to find any of the skeletons suspected to lurk in Mr Bush's personal closet; instead, it will focus on the cardinal strength of his campaign so far - his seemingly infinite capacity to raise cash.

According to Gore strategists quoted by the Washington Post, Mr Gore has reversed an earlier decision to first tackle the unexpectedly strong showing by Bill Bradley, his rival for the Democratic nomination. Instead, he will pick up on hints of voters' misgivings about the seemingly unassailable lead Mr Bush has built up over his Republican rivals, and the extent to which US democracy may be skewed by fund-raising.

The decision to move the campaign in this direction could signal a judgement that Mr Bush's past is as unsullied as Mr Gore's - or, indeed, as Mr Bradley's is reputed to be. But rumours abound of Mr Bush's misspent youth, of alcohol, women and drugs - not just cannabis, but cocaine. And no one, not even Mr Bush himself, has ever argued that he has nothing in his past that could be used against him.

Yet three factors have combined to limit the damage from such rumours, at least at this early stage in the campaign. First, no one has come forward to substantiate them. Local reporters tried to investigate Mr Bush's past when he stood successfully for governor of Texas in 1994, but they turned up nothing. Attempts by national reporters, chronicled earlier this year by the Wall Street Journal, have been similarly unproductive.

This does not mean that no aggrieved women or associates will emerge in the future, as the stakes become higher - Bill Clinton's efforts to keep his past under wraps were initially successful, too - but this cannot be guaranteed.

Second, Mr Bush has insisted in every interview he has given so far that he is a reformed character, a devoted family man, and that his past is his own business. When the Washington Post addressed the drugs question head on, the conversation went like this:

"We need to ask the cocaine question. We think you believe that a politician should not let stories fester. So why won't you just deny that you've used cocaine?"

Bush: "I'm not going to talk about what I did years ago. This is a game where they float rumours, force a person to fight off a rumour; then they'll float another rumour. And I'm not going to participate."

But the third factor - and the reason Mr Bush may get away with maintaining that his past is his own business - is the election and presidency of Bill Clinton. As the first president of his generation, Mr Clinton had to fight all the political battles first. That he won them is of huge benefit to the candidates of 2000. Unfortunately for the blameless Mr Gore, Mr Clinton's victories look likely to benefit his chief Republican rival most.

Mr Clinton was almost felled on the Vietnam draft-dodging issue. More than half the declared candidates for next year did serve in Vietnam, but attempts by the Los Angeles Times to suggest that family ties allowed Mr Bush to serve as a pilot in the US rather than in combat, drew little interest, still less opprobrium.

During the 1991-2 campaign, much was made of Mr Clinton's "smoking but not inhaling cannabis - a statement contemporaries say may actually be true. Several candidates for 2000 admit to having "tried" soft drugs, but even Mr Bush's refusal to answer "the cocaine question" seems to be without political repercussions.

In surviving the Monica Lewinsky affair, Mr Clinton appears to have convinced American voters that presidents have a right to a private life, that personal failings can be separated from professional competence. The upshot is that personal miscoduct may no longer be the candidate-killer it once was, leaving money - the raising and the use of it - a more promising focus for political attack. If Mr Bush, or any other candidate with a "dubious" past is elected next year, Mr Clinton, as the first babyboom president, will deserve much of the credit.

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