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There's No Doubt -- We're In for a Rough Campaign

>By Ronald Brownstein

Los Angeles Times

With the battle for the White House officially joined, President Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton have quickly erased any doubts about its nature: This campaign is going to be fast, relentless and mean.

Already, the attacks, counterattacks and flanking maneuvers have reached an intensity not typically seen until October. And in these rancorous engagements, the two sides have exposed an aggressive philosophy--both intend to constantly force the debate back onto one or two central arguments and quickly neutralize issues that threaten to distract from those core contentions.

Bush and Clinton "are each clearly trying to avoid letting the other frame the debate on terms unfavorable to themselves," says Thomas E. Mann, director of the governmental studies program at the Brookings Institution.

As part of that strategy, both men are moving to maximize their differences on issues where they perceive an advantage--and minimize them on questions where they feel vulnerable. Clinton, for instance, moved a bit closer to Bush on the issue of fuel efficiency standards for automobiles--a potentially volatile question in Michigan and other Rust Belt battlegrounds. Bush, meanwhile, has echoed a key Clinton proposal to retrain American workers.

At the same time, both campaigns are trying to frame in the sharpest possible terms two contrasts with their opponents: one centering on the economy and the other on trust.

In Bush's case the linchpin arguments are trust and taxes. Bush is portraying the Arkansas governor as a tax-and-spend liberal who would make the economy even worse by expanding government and is hiding his intention to do so as part of a broader pattern of misleading voters about his political agenda and personal life.

For Clinton, the centerpiece arguments are the economy and trust as well. Clinton maintains that Bush, trapped in the grip of an obsolete laissez faire economic theory, has failed to produce a plan to revive the economy and, now, in a desperate attempt to save his job is unleashing both wild accusations and implausible promises he has no intention of keeping.

The efforts by both sides to force the debate through these competing prisms is perhaps most visible in their skirmishing over the past week on the economy and the federal budget.

In his acceptance speech last Thursday, Bush moved to reattach himself to the conservative economic agenda of restraining the scope and size of government. That required some artful stitching: Bush has been under fire from conservatives not only for raising taxes, but also for presiding over the most rapid increase in domestic spending since John F. Kennedy, as well as a resurgence in federal regulation.

On the podium in Houston, Bush reversed course on each of those issues. He promised to extend for another year an ongoing ban on most new federal regulations; he again called for Congress to approve a balanced budget amendment; most dramatically, he called for an unspecified across-the-board tax cut--and, as a further restraint on government spending, a new check-off that would allow taxpayers to divert up to 10 percent of their bill toward deficit reduction rather than government operations.

Many economists immediately questioned those proposals because Bush offered little indication of where he would find the spending cuts to reduce the existing $315 billion deficit--much less offset the revenue lost from his tax proposals.

Then on Monday, Bush followed his ringing call for fiscal restraint with the announcement of a new job training program that will cost $10 billion over the next five years.

"There is no way these numbers add up," says Stephen Moore, director of fiscal studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. "You can't cut taxes, raise spending and balance the budget."

But summing the numbers economically may be less important than aligning them politically. By promising to cut overall spending and taxes, Bush underscores his differences with Clinton's proposals to increase taxes and spending on domestic programs.

Seen through that light, Bush's surprising job training announcement comes into sharper focus as an effort to neutralize secondary issues--and shift the debate back onto his preferred battlefield.

Noting that he had earlier proposed to cut training programs for displaced workers, some observers see Bush's new training initiative--like his proposal this spring to allow all Americans access to federal loans for college education--as an effort to deny Clinton a clear contrast on an issues he has stressed.

As Clinton put it in an address to the Detroit Economic Club last Friday: "Across the country, people are eager for real answers about how we can create new jobs and save existing jobs, but the promises Mr. Bush made (in his speech) are intended to only save one job: his."

Still, Clinton in the past few days has shifted his own feet in ways that allow Republicans to question his sincerity. In that same Detroit speech, Clinton moved to neutralize an issue the GOP was banking on in the Midwest, by promising to be "flexible" in urging automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of their cars.

The Bush administration opposes increasing such requirements, and argues that insisting on greater efficiency could wipe out thousands of auto-manufacturing jobs throughout the Rust Belt; at the Republican convention last week, Michigan's Republican Gov. John Engler maintained higher standards could cost 40,000 jobs in that state alone.

To Republican critics, Clinton's response on the issue fits a pattern of strategic fuzziness: "There are few issues on which Gov. Clinton's instinct is not to waffle," says David Tell, the Bush campaign's director of opposition research. "I would say that he's waffling on this one and he will continue to waffle until he paints himself in a word corner he can't get out of."

Observers like Mann expect quite a bit of waffling--and accusations of inconsistency--from both candidates as they perpetually jostle for tactical advantage. "My view is that for both of these guys all of the details are negotiable," Mann says.

But even amidst that fog, Mann says, the two men continue to offer the voters starkly different approaches: with Bush insisting that the key to prosperity is restraining spending and taxes, and Clinton pinning his hopes for economic revival on often expensive government initiatives in education, training, scientific research, infrastructure and health care.

"There is a dramatic contrast on economic and social policy between these two candidates, and no matter what, that will come through loud and clear," Mann says.