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Theme Wars 2000 | The Nation

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Theme Wars 2000

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Jackson's campaign line would not be a surprise. He would probably poke at the economic triumphalism of Clinton and Gore. The economy is booming? Not for all, he has argued, noting that the forces of global capitalism must be checked by people power. In December Jackson said his decision to run would depend on whether any candidate had "anything to say that is relevant to the people of eastern Kentucky and central West Virginia and Appalachian Ohio, where good people, working hard, have tried to break the cycle of poverty." He would press Gore on Social Security and trade, but, given Jackson's embrace of Clinton, the question hovers, How far can he push without appearing overly opportunistic? It will be a delicate dance to shift from Clinton confessor/champion to foe of Gore--especially if Democratic voters traumatized by impeachment look to rally behind FOB No. 1.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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The battle of the message is more freewheeling within Republican ranks, with a larger field. There may be a front-runner or two, but no one with a Terminator-like claim on the nomination. Texas Governor George W. Bush and former Red Cross chief Elizabeth Dole, both undeclared, are the handicappers' faves, but neither has ever campaigned nationally as a candidate. In the GOP theme contest, Bush is ahead, with his compact slogan "compassionate conservatism." It's not clear if the phrase--which can be read as a demeaning retort to rough and acerbic Gingrichian conservatism--has any significance beyond style. That is, does it convey anything other than that George W., a big fan of welfare reform, has a warm smile and is comfortable with Americans of Hispanic ancestry? During his recent inaugural, Bush deployed a bilingual slogan, "Juntos Podemos/Together We Can." It was part of his ongoing effort to set himself apart from rabid right-wingers. In his speech he said that "diversity gives Texas new life, new energy, new blood, and we should not fear it." On another occasion, he declared, "I'm a tolerant person." (In 1993, though, he did say heaven was only open to followers of Jesus Christ--a position he has since reversed, at least in public.)

Bush's toleration-hugging steps have caused some political observers to label him a moderate Republican. But for several years, he has been meeting with the policy gurus of the right--Richard John Neuhaus, Marvin Olasky, Linda Chavez, David Horowitz--and, according to National Review, the consensus is that Bush is solidly conservative. Yet as a front-runner with snap-of-the-fingers fundraising ability, he is under little pressure to detail the contents of his friendly brand of conservatism. "Republicans feel comfortable with someone who is entitled," says one Republican strategist. "But this is the first time since 1968 no one comes in entitled. George W. is creating the image of inevitability, which is a substitute for entitlement. But it's a little nuts. We don't know where he's going with his compassionate conservatism."

Elizabeth Dole, like Bush, has coasted to co-leader ranking without lifting the phone. She has said nothing to indicate what direction a Dole campaign might take. Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly has razzed Dole on the air for having muttered not a peep on the Clinton scandal. When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked her about abortion rights, she refused to state a position, remarking, "At this point, I really don't want to get into political issues." Her tabula is the most rasa of the GOPers. "She hasn't said anything," notes a Republican Party official. "My sense is you won't hear much from her for a while. She can afford to let the other candidates scramble. Her message, for now, is herself. And that's not so bad."

The rest of the GOP pack divides into two camps: those explicitly courting the religious right and those who are not but who wouldn't spurn its affection. Last year, it appeared that Missouri Senator John Ashcroft had social conservatives lined up. Then he pulled out of the race. Others quickly swooped in--and confronted a tough task: If you're a Republican angling to lead the far right, how do you distinguish yourself?

Steve Forbes has the power of conversion on his side. In 1996 Forbes, the flat-tax über alles candidate, was squishy on abortion. The Christian Coalition, he huffed then, "does not speak for most Christians." Understandably, the religious right mobilized against him. This time out, he has fused his antitax crusade to rock-solid social conservatism. He says that stopping abortions is more important than driving a stake through the tax code. At a Christian Coalition convention in September, the multimillionaire told the faithful, "You have stood your ground, you have fought the good fight." He has chided the GOP for focusing "too little" on Monicagate; he funded radio ads urging impeachment. His blatant flip-flop is working. In November the never-elected-to-anything Forbes topped a straw poll of conservative leaders. By campaigning as a full-throttle social conservative and an antigovernment/antitax conservative, he is hoping to place a trademark on the phrase: I am Reagan. But if that doesn't cut it, he still stands out in another way: He can write his own check for $25 million.

In Spartacus-like fashion, Gary Bauer, too, shouts out: I'm a Reagan Republican. Bauer, who has relinquished his position as head of the Family Research Council to run, is reprising the role Pat Robertson played in 1988, when he cemented his position as the high priest of the religious right. Bauer, like Robertson, will be able to call upon a base of activists. And his political action committee has raised $7 million. He has broken with the corporatist wing of the GOP by criticizing plans to privatize Social Security and by opposing most-favored-nation trade status for China. But on the stump he has concentrated on bashing Clinton, assailing "the abortion culture" and decrying gay rights. He recently trekked to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to urge defeat of an ordinance that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. For Republicans obsessed with the so-called radical homosexual agenda, he could be the man. A January straw poll of slight but some significance, taken at the Conservative Political Action Conference, found Bauer the favorite: He drew 28 percent to George W.'s 24 percent, Forbes's 10 percent and Dole's 8 percent.

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