On the day after the Democratic Convention, with Al Gore's bounce beginning to register in the polls, the mood in Austin, Texas, was one of unflappable calm. George W. Bush's advisers had predicted Gore's surge; now they were saying it wouldn't last. All Bush had to do, a senior aide said, was stay focused on his message and not let Gore goad him into a fight. "We need to keep from falling into the trap of looking at what they're doing and then responding."
Then Bush fell into that trap. His campaign script called for him to spend last week wooing women and independents with education photo-ops and speeches in key states. But what was planned as a week of centrist appeals ended up being consumed by Bush's halting efforts to explain his tax-cut plan. In the first week of head-to-head campaigning after the conventions, Bush committed a cardinal sin: he let his opponent pull him off message.
The Texas Governor's troubles began when he mangled his words in a speech last Monday night. Sounding a bit like his dad, he tried to say "tariffs and barriers" but came out with "terriers." He declared he would never allow rogue nations to hold America "hostile." And he ended a confusing riff about federal budgets with the vague assurance that "we've still got trillions of dollars left in the surplus." Aides explained away the slips by saying he was tired. But it was only August, and Bush had been away from home for all of one day. The next morning, as his campaign jet idled on the runway in Des Moines, the Governor strolled back to the press corps and allowed that "I've got to do a better job." Eager for a close race, the media seized on the admission as a sign of disarray. With Gore on the rise, old questions about Bush--Is he smart enough? Is he willing to work hard enough?--were being asked again.
Maybe the press was too hungry for Bush in Trouble stories. But there were some troubling signs. Chief among them: an internal feud over a G.O.P.-financed TV ad that took a Gore interview from 1994 and edited it to imply that the Vice President had refused to admit that Bill Clinton lied about Monica in 1998. Despite Bush's oft-stated aversion to personal attacks, this one had been in the works for a month, and many of his advisers urged him to run it. When it was shown to a focus group, Bush's advisers were jubilant. "We were laughing, it tested so well," says one. But at the last minute, Bush killed the spot--an honorable decision that caused bitterness inside his campaign. And having to explain the episode threw him off message again.
Privately, Bush aides admit that their man had a few bad days but say it's better to stumble now than in October. And they insist there are no lessons to be learned. "In a couple of weeks," predicts spokesman Ari Fleischer, "you'll be saying, 'Bush is back.'" Either that, or the campaign will look back and wonder what warning signs it missed in August.
--With reporting by John F. Dickerson