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THE ICONOCLAST

The making of the next Al Gore

AFTER AL GORE lost the last presidential election, frustrated Democrats publicly
blamed his defeat on everybody but Al Gore. They blamed Katherine Harris and Ralph Nader. They blamed Bill Clinton and the Supreme Court. Privately, however, they blamed Gore himself. The country was at peace, the economy strong. Bill Clinton had moved the Democratic Party away from its leftist inclinations and back to the political center. How, they wondered, could Al Gore have blown it? Forget Florida; the bigger question was, why was it even close?It is a question John Kerry should consider, for he is in the process of becoming the next Al Gore.

Again things would appear to be going the Democrats' way: George Bush has a modest economic recovery going for him, but increasingly, both John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld seem like double-agents planted in the administration as part of a Democratic plot to embarrass the president.

The Defense Department argues that the situation in Iraq is much better than the various insurgencies would suggest. But even if that's true, it's not the kind of hail-the-liberators slam-dunk we had been led to expect. And it's getting more and more expensive. And, with the prisoner abuse scandal, embarrassing.

But just as Al Gore got no lift from the Democrats' good fortune, John Kerry is getting no lift from Republicans' ill fortune. After the photographs of prisoner abuse, and even with the resultant drop in the president's poll numbers, Kerry's support actually declined among likely voters.

In 16 states that were close in 2000, where Bush and Kerry were tied a month ago, a USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll now shows Bush 5 points ahead. The reason is simple: Americans take the election of a president seriously, and no matter what their feelings about the incumbent, a challenger cannot win unless he is seen as a credible alternative. That is John Kerry's problem.

There are three kinds of voters:

* Those who think the president is doing a good job, who like him, and who will vote for him.

* Those who would vote for a tree stump to replace the president -- the folks with all those clever "redefeat Bush" signs who have convinced themselves that the president is dumb, mean, and never won in the first place. Some will vote for Nader but most will vote for Kerry.

* Then there are the undecideds, who are not really undecided. They've decided that they are willing to consider replacing the president, but only for somebody who would be an improvement. Even in states that Al Gore won, John Kerry has not yet made the case that he's a better choice. Kerry spends much of his time condemning Bush's perceived shortcomings, but Bush is not the only issue: Most voters already know what they think of him and whether or not they are willing to consider firing him. For them, it is not George Bush but John Kerry who is the issue.

Clinton was able to persuade voters that he was a better choice -- better able to relate to them -- than the first President Bush. But this time the shoe is on the other patrician foot. John Kerry talks a lot about what he thinks is wrong with this George Bush, but bio ads or no bio ads, he has not yet given voters a reason to vote for him instead. That's why, no matter what happens in Iraq, the Kerry campaign remains stuck in place.

HARD TO KEEP UPFirst Kerry tries to pull off his own Sister Souljah moment. In 1992, Bill Clinton used a speech to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition to lash out at one of the coalition's handpicked speakers, a rap artist named Sister Souljah, in an attempt to woo white suburbanites by distancing himself from Jackson. It worked, in what columnist Clarence Page calls "a defining moment" for the Clinton campaign. So now here was John Kerry, 12 years later, at a school in California, proposing a merit system for teachers -- a proposal that teachers unions detest.

Did the teachers think he was sincere, or just John Kerry being John Kerry? Hard to know, but afterward the teachers' spokesman hastened to tell us how much they love the guy.

Then, days later, Kerry suggests as replacements for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld two Republican senators, John McCain and John Warner, both of whom are far more in line with Bush's defense policies than with Kerry's.

That Kerry: is this guy a hoot or what?

RED STATE, BLUE STATEBlue state (Kerry supporters): Think that calling somebody a cowboy is a pejorative. Red state (Bush supporters): Built a Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, teaches at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International affairs. His column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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