The Washington Times

Much to the disappointment of Republicans hoping that George W. Bush would coast into the White House on the strength of impressions of the candidates long firmly established in the minds of voters, Al Gore has finally become as formidable as he ought to be. Quite simply, the past – a nearly unbroken string of Bush leads in head-to-head polls against Mr. Gore, even through the tough primary contest with John McCain – can no longer be construed as prologue.

Yes, conventions usually produce bounces, and Mr. Gore got one. But “bounce” doesn’t accurately describe what the past three weeks have done for Mr. Gore. At last, he stepped alone into the spotlight. Whatever people may have thought of him before – and while the polling evidence suggests they didn’t think much of him before, it also suggest that they were not thinking much about him at all – he emerged as attractive, electable, and wholly plausible as president. Even if there is a “bounce” contributing to the trajectory Mr. Gore is on now, when the bounce effect is over, Mr. Gore is hardly going to find himself back where he was in mid-August. So the preliminaries are over, and the Bush campaign needs to understand the uphill character of the battle it faces between now and November.

There is a myth of long standing about running for president from the office of the vice presidency, a myth George Bush helped foster when he was elected in 1988 after two terms as Ronald Reagan’s veep. The myth is that it is especially difficult to be elected from that office.

President-elect Bush helped this impression along by amusingly citing as his role model Martin Van Buren, the last vice president to pull the trick off, in 1836.

This is true as far as it goes. But it neglects to note that between Marty and Mr. Bush, only two other sitting vice presidents have run in the general election. Richard Nixon lost by a whisker in 1960, and Hubert Humphrey lost by a nose in 1968. This is not exactly a daunting historical record for a sitting veep to confront.

It makes sense that the most common circumstance in which a sitting vice president obtains the presidential nomination of his party is at the end of the second term of his predecessor. That’s Andrew Jackson for Van Buren, Eisenhower for Nixon, Mr. Reagan for Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton for Mr. Gore. (The Johnson-Humphrey connection is unusual in that Johnson, embroiled in the widening Vietnam War, bowed out of the 1968 race.) A successful two-term presidency is a vice president’s best hope for immediate advancement.

Is that what Mr. Gore has on his hands? Partisan Republicans will never go along with the idea of the Clinton administration as successful. And indeed, it took Mr. Gore a long time to establish that he is his “own man,” as he said in his acceptance speech – which is to say, to separate himself from the less savory aspects of Mr. Clinton, the ones reflected in the president’s high personal disapproval ratings in polls.

But what about the job approval? What about the conditions in which Mr. Gore is running?

The answer there is obvious. If you were a political operative out to elect a sitting vice president to the presidency, and you were contemplating selling your soul in exchange for favorable circumstances for your man’s candidacy, what would you ask for? George Bush in 1988 was running in good times, indeed. Inflation was down to 4.1 percent, the unemployment rate was down to 5.5. percent, the budget deficit was down to about $150 billion, and it was the longest peacetime expansion in history.

Would you really have the nerve to tell Old Nick “Pish-tosh, you can do better than that”? Would you really have the gumption to demand an economic growth rate of 5.3 percent, inflation at 3.2 percent, unemployment at 4.1 percent, 30-year Treasuries yielding under 5.75 percent and falling, and -what the hell – a federal budget surplus of $250 billion (with an upward revision scheduled for October)? The Dow Jones Industrial Average over 11,000? An economic expansion even longer than the one George Bush rode to the White House?

No, you would not. You’d think the devil would laugh at you.

The conditions in which Mr. Gore is seeking elevation are simply without modern precedent. They are beyond ideal. Mr. Gore says a top priority is to pay off the national debt by 2012. He has other agenda items, to be sure, but properly understood, vowing to pay off the debt is the perfect campaign promise for these times: To pay off the national debt is to do nothing at all but let the money keep coming in while the good times roll.

That’s what Mr. Gore has going for him, and that’s what George W. Bush is up against. The wonder is that it has taken this long for Mr. Gore to get out of his own way.