Campaigns Aren't Cooling Down

Texas Gov. George W. Bush pined for a "hibernation period" while Vice President Al Gore hoped to give his advertising budget a breather and convince voters he is indeed a reformer.

Both presidential rivals saw their plans muddied by nagging scandals, new headlines and old rivalries as the winter campaign pivoted straight toward fall.

Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, meanwhile, promised to file a complaint Monday with the Federal Elections Commission to force his way into the major parties' one-on-one fall debates.

Judging by the week past and week ahead, the general election campaign for president will be one of the most protracted, feisty and expensive in history.

Gore has $3 million more to raise to meet the goal he set last year and also reach the maximum he legally can spend before the summer conventions. The Democrat planned a fund-raiser in Illinois on the eve of the state's Tuesday primary, to be followed by five more fund-raisers by week's end.

The vice president's busy week also includes opportunities to heckle the Republican governor. In New York, Gore intends to harp on Bush policies allegedly harmful to minorities, aides said. On Thursday, Gore was returning to Houston for the second time in two weeks to raise cash for Democrats.

"The Gore campaign is going to make sure the American people know the record of Texas, and the governor is going to have to defend the indefensible," spokesman Chris Lehane said.

Bush planned to tweak Gore with a fund-raiser Friday in Bill Clinton's backyard, Little Rock, Ark. Bush, who drained his bankroll of an unprecedented $60 million in his GOP primary fight with Arizona Sen. John McCain, aims to build up $10 million by summer.

The candidates are showing few signs of letting up, but some professional pols worry about voter fatigue.

Both Gore and Bush "would be well-served to ramp down a little in this period," GOP strategist Ed Gillespie said.

"People have to get to the grocery store and get their kids to baseball practice a lot of things that don't involve figuring out who's going to be president eight months for now."

Neither candidate appeared to heed the advice, despite Bush's declaration, on the same night that he and Gore secured their respective parties' nominations, that he would ease up on campaigning for a while.

Brushing off Gore's e-mailed challenge for immediate debates and joint town-hall meetings, Bush said wishfully at midweek: "America is now going into a hibernation period when it comes to politics."

But on Friday, it was Bush who fired first in the ad war with a television spot on education that staked out a Republican claim to this vital issue.

A poll released Friday, while confirming that Gore had erased Bush's overall lead in the national race, put hard evidence behind the Bush strategy of claiming education. Among parentsBush was leading Gore by 23 percentage points and was 15 points ahead among suburban white women.

"We're coming out of the primary better and stronger than Gore, and given the fact that he had a cakewalk (against Democrat Bill Bradley) and we had a battle, we think there's more good things to come," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Bush's early ad salvo forced Gore to respond with his own ad and abandon budget-conscious plans to stay off-air as long as possible.

Unlike Bush, who declined federal matching funds and spending limits and can draw from a traditionally deep GOP reserve, Gore must watch his bottom line and count on for now beating Bush with shoe leather.

Trying to claim higher ground on education, Gore was due to spend several hours at a Midwest school Friday, meeting with teachers and administrators, even teaching a civics class.

While gaining in the frequent flier department, Gore faces a trickle of ominous reminders of controversy inherited from his shared tenure with Clinton.

New headlines had the unfortunate timing of bumping into Gore's effort to claim campaign finance reform as a new centerpiece of his campaign: Congress' bipartisan Joint Taxation Committee reported that, in 1997, Gore's office made improper attempts to get Internal Revenue Service information for a labor union.

So Bush railed from the campaign trail last week that the IRS news, coupled with Gore's campaign fund-raising problems in 1996, "aren't mistakes. These are habits. They raise serious ethical questions."

Worse for Gore, Independent Counsel Robert Ray outlined a schedule for releasing his final reports on the Clintons that would put "Travelgate" and Whitewater in headlines at least through the summer.

Bush took his own turn on the defensive after an interview with The New York Times in which he appeared to dismiss McCain just as Republicans were hoping Bush would reach out to his rival and unite the GOP.

While McCain supporters were outraged and stunned by the political tone-deafness Bush showed, the Bush campaign circulated through the McCain camp a full transcript of the interview, hoping to smooth relations with evidence of Bush's claim that his discussion of McCain was taken out of context.

Tossed another hot potato, Bush acted more deftly and backed another step away from the rightward list he took in the primary.

Bush took rare disagreement with National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, chastising him as having "gone too far" when he said Clinton and Gore are willing to accept a certain amount of lethal gun violence in order to further their political agenda for gun control.