Texas Gov. George W. Bush continues to enhance his lead in the polls over Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race. Despite what we believe about the value of polling at this time in the contest, Bush’s success on the campaign trail contrasts with Gore’s constant difficulties (with staff, corruption charges and creating a “persona”) and is beginning to define a pattern that may continue. Over the past week, Bush has jumped into a 52-39 lead over Gore in a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll; up from 48-44.

Give Bush credit for staying on message, focusing on issues that can expand his base and basically appearing to be a very likable man. The vice president, meanwhile, is wrestling with Justice Department investigators who are questioning his answers in recent interviews relating to his role in the 1996 campaign finance problems and reworking several of his issue stances.

More and more, I am hearing criticism of Gore’s current persona, the casual candidate. Golf shirts are fine for golf, but to campaign day after day in them is wearing thin. He does not look serious, and every picture tells the viewer that he is costumed . . . not natural. But how does he get back to the proper, suit-wearing vice president? If he switches now, he will be seen as “remaking Al Gore” again. He’s got to get himself centered and balanced so that he can focus the campaign on the issues that can help him win. Bush is doing that very well.

In what is already a record money year, the big checks keep rolling in to the national committees of the parties. The Republicans reported $12.2 million in soft money contributions for May; the Democrats hit $15 million with their record fundraiser. The Republicans still lead in the money column with just over $100 million so far for this year’s campaign, but they do not have the domination in funds that they had before. The Democrats are right on their heels.

Those checks are staggering to those of us who have been in the political arena for while. We used to think a $5,000 check was big and a $10,000 gift was a miracle. Now, you can’t get into the average congressman’s breakfast fundraiser with checks that size. It takes six figures to be a real player these days.

This is the first presidential campaign where a Web site is important, and every campaign has invested in Internet activity. The party sites are basic, comprehensive and not too slick. The Democratic National Committee is: www.democrats.org; the Republican National Committee is: www.gop.org. From these sites, you can find links to almost every imaginable campaign, the presidential candidates, the state organizations and the congressional committees.

The Republicans have given their Web operation a boost with some imaginative sites that capture your imagination and provoke your interaction. They have created a virtual convention (www.gopconvention.com) that allows the visitor to register as a convention delegate, get passes to the floor of the convention hall in Philadelphia and enjoy streaming video of convention action. It isn’t the same as attending a real convention, but it is remarkable simulation and very educational. At www.gop2000.com, the strategy of the general election is simulated. An electoral college map is displayed and the visitor is challenged to create the winning combination of states. It is quite instructive.

The other candidates and other parties are also well represented on the Web. The Reform Party is a real Internet-based party. It is planning to hold its primary election later this month on the Internet. Reform party members will cast their ballots exclusively on the Internet during a three week period leading up to their convention in Long Beach, California in early August. Their official Web site is www.rpusa.com, and from it one can link to its front runner, Pat Buchanan’s site or to that of John Hagelin, his challenger. Ralph Nader, now the nominee of The Green Party is also making the best of the Net. He has his party up on www.nader.com.

About this time in the election cycle, the third-party nominees raise their heads and demand attention. The issue isn’t so much getting elected as it is to influence the race.

Nader has been making the rounds of those populist groups, including important unions, that are disaffected by Gore’s positions on trade and who believe, of all things, that he is selling out on the environment. Buchanan also trumpets a protectionist platform but his far-right social platform and his weird international views limit his ability to convert the mainstream support he sought from labor. Nader might have a chance to get the support of the Teamsters and/or the steel workers, and that would hurt Gore’s chances.

Buchanan presumes to represent the far right and attract potential Bush supporters who cannot compromise on social issues. So far, Buchanan has fared poorly and is getting just a percent or two of the vote. Maybe the $12 million in federal funds that his party has coming will change that, but I doubt it. His big problem now is with the Reform Party itself. The party leadership resents his tactics in taking over their party and they are appalled by his platform. They want Ross Perot to come back to save them and they are likely to try to thwart the Buchanan effort at their ballot box and convention. Pat has his work cut out for him over the next six weeks, but the prize is big: $12 million to spend on his campaign this fall.

This past week, President Bill Clinton announced that his economic projections had been terribly wrong. The governmental surplus would be trillions of dollars larger than had been forecast.

What the new estimates mean to the presidential race is that the candidates have less to argue about. The numbers show that Bush can afford his tax cut while still allocating the kinds of money Gore wants for “needed programs.” The numbers may have taken the steam out of the economic debate to be held this fall.

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