WASHINGTON — With still six months to go, the U.S. presidential campaign of 2000 is in the doldrums. Neither candidate really has much wind in his campaign sails. Texas Gov. George W. Bush is still out in front — 47-41 — of Vice President Al Gore. That is about the same margin his dad was behind at this same time in his 1988 campaign, and if you recall, the senior Bush came from behind and won that election by a landslide.

The voters know a lot about sitting vice presidents, including a lot they do not like. They probably won’t change their minds very much about their likes and dislikes about Gore, but they could change their view of Bush. He is less known, and the Democrats are going to help voters get to know more about him. Their campaign attack ads are in preparation and when they get done, Bush is likely to look a lot more conservative and less successful as a governor than he does today.

Clearly, Bush has used the last two months well, and Gore has used the time poorly. Bush has focused on Democratic issues like Social Security, education and health care. He is projecting new ideas, making himself both visible and newsworthy as he moves to the center from the far right posture he assumed to defeat his rivals in the primaries.

Gore, meanwhile, has drifted and he has slipped in the polls. Slipping at this time is not necessarily bad, but he seems to be uneasy with the track he is traveling. His issues are not crisply defined and he is not delivering a strong, forward-looking message. There is still plenty of time, but his supporters are grumbling about the weaknesses his campaign is showing.

Money took center stage in the past several weeks. The two parties demonstrated their skill at raking in big bucks with competing fundraising events in Washington. The Republican National Committee held its annual gala and brought in a record $21.5 million. Not to be outdone, the Democratic National Committee a few weeks later raised $26.5 million at a single event.

Almost all of the money that these events raised was “soft money” — the kind of unregulated funds that are supposed to be used only for “party building” purposes. But party building isn’t what it used to be. In the early years after the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974, soft money was only used to support volunteer activity, particularly in registration drives and voter turn out programs. It was used to muster support for all of the candidates on the party’s ballot, not for media.

The Clinton campaign of 1996 changed all of that. That campaign used soft money to broadcast television commercials designed “to inform the voters of issues.” The DNC spent millions of dollars in a carefully targeted campaign that destroyed Republican candidate Bob Dole in the key electoral states before he got started. It was a superb effort. It redefined the uses of soft money.

The trick that redefined soft money was an analysis of a footnote in the Supreme Court’s decision that upheld the FECA. It said that if an ad does not say “vote for, vote against” or similar words, then the campaign act does not apply. There is no restriction, “no controlling legal authority,” as Gore would say.

Soon the voters in key states will begin to see a deluge of ads about the two candidates. Most of the ads will be negative, though some will paint the candidate as a supporter of something the voters are sure to like. By Labor Day in September, the traditional starting point for the presidential campaign, people’s opinions will have changed dramatically — thanks to a loophole and a lot of soft money.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last month to provide permanent normal trade relations with China by a vote of 237 to 197. The campaign for PNTR was long and well developed. It was led by President Bill Clinton, who sees his China policy as a defining issue for his administration and a part of his presidential legacy. But he had a lot of help. The vote came after an all-out effort by Clinton, supported, interestingly enough, by his normal adversaries, the Republican Congressional leadership. To help them, three former presidents, Gov. Bush and a plethora of former Cabinet officials weighed in to be helpful. Gore supported the bill, much to the chagrin of his labor supporters.

From the private sector, the big guns were rolled out. The business community was led by the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donahue, and supported by every major business organization and Fortune 500 CEO in the country. The support groups spent over $10 million in ads urging voters to contact their congressmen to vote for the bill. This kind of support for trade has been lacking for many years.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney mobilized the opposition that included elements of the environmental, religious and veterans groups. Mainly, it was labor’s political muscle in the Democratic caucus that was effective. Labor made trade a litmus test for Democrats. The entire Democratic leadership in the House opposed PNTR. Labor lost the day, but it kept most Democrats in line. An analysis of the vote shows that almost all Democrats from industrial areas voted “no.” Only the farm state Democrats and those with high-tech constituencies supported the bill.

China has been a policy conundrum — as difficult an issue to manage as any I have ever seen. As normalized relations have progressed over the past quarter century, Americans of various stripes have found concerns with China that, when added together, create a major negative force. Labor unions worry about a flood of imported goods made in Chinese sweatshops taking their jobs. Religious conservatives rail against the godless governmental philosophy of communism and the population control policies of the government. Liberals decry the human-rights policies. Press advocates oppose the lack of press freedom. Old China hands worried about Beijing’s covetous nature toward Taiwan. Everybody seems to be able to find something to oppose about China.

The granting of PNTR to China removes the annual review of trade policy by the Congress and denies all of the naysayers that yearly opportunity to voice their concerns against their pet Chinese policy deficiency. The ending of the annual review was a real problem for the bill’s proponents. No one wanted to give China a free pass on the hot issues. They mitigated this situation by adopting a number of amendments to the bill that provide forms of oversight on workers and human-rights problems and renewed support for the status of Taiwan.

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