The presidential primaries officially ground to a halt last week in New Jersey, and the national conventions don't begin until the end of July. Think of it as halftime in the campaign -- an opportunity for both candidates to assess their strengths and weaknesses, size up their opponent, and settle on an offense and defense that can get them through election day.
So far, the game's been tougher than either the Bush team or the Gore team expected. In the first quarter, Bill Bradley and John McCain each threw big enough scares into the front-runners to knock them off balance. Basically, Bradley tried an end run to Gore's left while McCain pulled the same play against Bush. Bradley scored a few easy points toward the beginning, but Gore's defense shifted left and held its ground. Bush let McCain go, figuring that, on the narrower Republican playing field, he'd run right out of bounds. After an early scare in New Hampshire -- and a little extra defense from Bush -- the strategy finally worked when McCain condemned Pat Robertson and never found his way back onto the field.
Both Bush and Gore took a few hits, but the primaries made them better candidates. Bush learned to deflect attacks and stay on message. Gore learned to attack the specifics of complicated proposals like the Bradley health-care plan -- good practice for ripping into Bush's plan for Social Security. But the second half is going to be a whole new ball game. Here's the chalk talk Bush and Gore need to hear in their locker rooms:
1. Don't get cocky about your single-digit lead in the polls. Back in 1980, Jimmy Carter was leading Ronald Reagan by seven points at halftime. In '88, Michael Dukakis was beating your father by nine; in '92, Bill Clinton was running well behind your father and Ross Perot. Only the losers looked at the score -- the winners kept campaigning.
Memo to Al Gore: Forget personality -- the only way for you to win this one is on the issues. Remember that most voters agree with you on most issues, so you should get the most votes. And keep your eye on California.
2. The tax-cut play isn't as simple as it was in your father's day, especially since a majority of voters are now more interested in paying down the debt. So soft-pedal your proposed $1.5 trillion tax cut. Say you'd like a big tax cut -- bigger than anything Gore would consider -- but don't stay married to that number. You know you really can't increase spending on education and defense, reform Social Security and Medicare, and still deliver the biggest tax cut in history while keeping the budget balanced. So remind everyone that the specifics would have to be worked out with Congress, and if you couldn't cut taxes quite as much as you might want, the amount could be tailored accordingly.
3. Don't let Gore drag you into a skirmish about your proposal to partially privatize Social Security. Just keep repeating how preserving this program for the twenty-first century requires a bold new vision and make a read-my-lips promise not to cut any benefits. Well, maybe don't use those words.
4. When Gore attacks your tax cut by saying it would inevitably cut into Medicare -- the same Democratic play that worked so well against Dole in '96 -- ask him why the Clinton-Gore administration cut Medicare by more than any previous administration. Then have your mother show her Medicare card to Katie Couric and talk about how her son wants to make this great program better.
5. You're not going to win the African-American vote, but don't walk away from it either -- that could undercut the credibility of your compassionate-conservative pitch. Visit private schools in African-American neighborhoods and sell your school-voucher program -- 60 percent of African-Americans support school vouchers. The Democrats own every other idea with that kind of popularity in the African-American community, so vouchers are the only potential wedge issue you have there. And when Al Gore says vouchers will hurt public schools, don't be afraid to get personal: Point out that you're the only candidate in the race whose kids actually attend public school.
6. Speak Spanish. Your Spanish is better than Gore's -- show it off. Hispanics are only 5 percent of the electorate, but they're concentrated in four states -- California, Florida, New York, Texas -- that can deliver more than half the 270 electoral votes you need to win.
7. Get Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge into the game. Putting a local favorite onstage at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia would instantly win you a crucial swing state, as well as generate more favorable media attention than anyone else on the shortlist. Ridge is a Vietnam combat veteran, as well as a Catholic pro-choice tax-cutter. He'll calm Catholic voters who might still be disturbed by your visit to Bob Jones University. And he'll help you pick up voters who skew pro-choice but don't rank the issue as a priority. Don't worry that Pat Buchanan and a couple of other prominent religious right-wingers will attack you -- it's exactly the kind of attack that could help you pick up voters in the middle. Plus, Ridge recently announced on Fox News that he'd support your pro-life position if you put him on the ticket. That's going to be good enough for everyone but the extremists, and standing up to the extremists never hurt anyone: Just ask Clinton, who went out of his way to distance himself from Jessie Jackson in '92. And remember that the last pro-choicer to get the No. 2 spot on the Republican ticket was your father. He agreed to support Reagan's pro-life position, and the ticket went on to two consecutive landslide victories.