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It’s a race down Yellow Brick Road

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Life, John Lennon once said, is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. In that sense, at least, the presidential race is a lot like life.

There's still a tendency in both parties, and much of the media, to plan as though the presidential race really begins on Labor Day, when Americans supposedly put down the suntan lotion and pick up the candidates' position papers. But, historically, the public's opinions about the candidates have solidified significantly over the summer, almost by osmosis, when no one appears to be watching anything other than the waves caressing the shore. By the time the summer — and the national party conventions — are over, Americans usually have a pretty good idea of who they want as their next president.

The Gallup Organization has been systematically polling in presidential races since 1952. In every case except one, the candidate who was ahead on Labor Day won the election in November; the one exception was Ronald Reagan in 1980, who trailed Jimmy Carter on Labor Day by a statistically meaningless single percentage point.

There's no guarantee that the Labor Day precedent will hold this year, of course, especially given how close this election could be. But that history makes these next three months critical for both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

Each has several crucial tasks ahead. Bush needs to continue courting centrist swing voters . Gore needs to both restore the (somewhat flagging) optimism about the country's overall direction — and portray Bush's agenda as a threat to the good times, particularly in the economy.

But at the top of the summer to-do list for both campaigns is filling in the voters' portraits of the two men. Most pollsters agree that personal impressions of the candidates are still relatively shallow. "The problem for Gore," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, "as for so many presidential candidates, is that he is well known but not known well." Hart could easily say the same for Bush; for many voters, the Texan's family history provides some initial guideposts, but few in either party believe Bush himself has come into focus much more than Gore. These men are both works in progress.

What may be clearest so far are the principal doubts each must overcome. Ask Gore's aides to define the most important message he must convey about himself in the coming weeks and they will universally answer: He has to show the voters he has a heart. Ask Bush's advisers the same question and in their most candid moments they will answer: He has to convince Americans he's got enough smarts for the job.

One candidate needs a heart; the other needs a brain. Forget the road to the White House. This contest is looking like a race down the yellow brick road to Oz. It's the Tin Man versus the Scarecrow.

The Tin Man, er, the vice president, seems to be facing two principal problems relating to voters. One is the sense that he is overly political and calculated; the second is the sense that he's insufficiently inspiring and commanding as a leader. The two problems are intertwined around a common question about Gore's deepest motivations and beliefs — in short, what's in his heart.

"People perceive Gore as a very good bureaucrat; they think he is very efficient and competent," says GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. "But ... leadership can have many facets to it. One is being a person of conviction, a person of principle, a person of self-confidence, the ability to motivate people. I don't think people see Gore in those terms."

Gore's advisers wouldn't accept all those negative characterizations, but they do buy Fabrizio's fundamental premise that Gore first has to give voters a deeper sense of his core convictions — and even a deeper sense that he has core convictions — before he can win the policy debates he tried to kindle this spring against Bush. "The biography is very important," says one senior Gore adviser. "If we are able to reassure people about our character and personal dimension, then that will open up some real opportunities on the issues."

Operating on that conviction, the Democratic National Committee's first round of advertising on Gore's behalf (which could start as soon as this week) is expected to stress the candidate's biography. That's an unusual emphasis for such party-purchased advertising, which in the past has focused more heavily on issue contrasts.

While the DNC says it's preparing some ads comparing Gore and Bush on issues, the blitz appears more likely to revive the themes of Gore's most successful television ad from the primaries: a spot that highlighted his service in Vietnam and his work as a newspaper reporter, and portrayed him as a fighter who overcame a youthful disillusionment with politics because he saw it as a means to help average families. "There's a cartoon image that he's arrived here without ever having to break a sweat," says another top Gore adviser, "and we want to show that this is a life that has been filled with difficult choices and some disillusionment ... and lots of the formative experiences that most Americans can probably say touched them and shaped them."

The Scarecrow, er, Bush, is making a strikingly different bet. He's probably spent less time talking about his life story than any presidential candidate in recent memory, and aides say that the party and campaign advertising is likely to heavily emphasize issues over biography as well. Partly that may reflect the difficulty of constructing drama from Bush's early Hotspur years of searching for his calling, but it also embodies the campaign's belief that the threshold for the Texan is convincing voters he has enough substance for the job. "I think we'd like to see a contrast of them talking about bio and us talking about issues," says one Bush aide.

Bush isn't likely to get a contrast quite so stark. Gore is too much the wonk to ever stop disgorging 10-point programs. Yet the vice president's campaign has recognized something important: With the economy strong and the demand for a sharply different policy direction weak, the greatest barriers Gore faces are personal ones. Bush still needs to convince the country he's intellectually suited for the job, but Gore's task may be even more urgent: He needs to convince America he's more than just another ambitious suit — whether blue or earth-tone or welded tin.