MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- George W. Bush was at the top of his form last Friday speaking to unusually boisterous, jam-packed rallies with a sense of victory in the air. But as the long day ended here, the Republican presidential candidate's team seemed rattled by a November surprise, even though it betrayed Democratic weakness.
Disclosure of a 24-year-old drunken driving violation by Bush in Maine was not the collaboration of a civic-minded lawyer and an enterprising lawyer, as the first accounts implied. Rather, all evidence points to intense partisans in Maine's hapless Democratic Party -- quite likely with the knowledge of Al Gore's high command -- setting this trap months ago. This resembles the 19th century's Roorback, the misleading report peddled in the closing days of a campaign.
There certainly was no reason for Gore to resort to such tactics in an election whose outcome was still very much in doubt. Nevertheless, Bush's call for lower taxes and less government has been playing well across the country. Supposedly surefire Democratic issues, like gun control and prescription drugs, have not worked. The resurrection of liberalism in America has been greatly exaggerated. So, the Gore campaign has launched personal attacks against Bush.
These assaults on Bush's competency and intelligence had gained no traction prior to last week's DUI revelation from a backwater of Democratic politics. Though Maine is one of the nation's most liberal states, no Democrat has been elected as a governor or U.S. senator there in 12 years. Portland lawyer John Connolly, who attracted only 13 percent of the vote as the party's 1998 nominee for governor, is renowned as a character who wears his long-billed fishing cap into court.
It was Connolly who leaked Bush's 1976 Maine arrest record after supposedly being tipped about it by an unnamed "public official" whom everybody in politics knows is Portland Probate Judge Billy Childs. Connolly and Childs are political compatriots and proteges of Joe Brennan, the state's last Democratic governor.
To hear Connolly tell the tale, the DUI record was identified, secured and leaked -- very innocently and very quickly -- all on Thursday. But Maine sources say Childs (who has maintained silence while Connolly does the talking) dug up Bush's court record some four months ago. Its impact would long ago have faded had it been released then. Five days before the election could be another matter.
The Gore campaign denies everything, but consider the connections. Connolly is close enough to the Gore operation to be one of his delegates to the Los Angeles convention, where he generated notice by the Associated Press with a poster avowing that the "W" in George W. Bush "stands for wiener." Gore press secretary Chris Lehane was born and raised in Kennebunckport (site of the Bush Maine summer home), and his sister is a partner with a Democratic law firm in Portland's tightly knit political community.
Is it conceivable that the Gore campaign was not aware of what Childs had? For all of their hands-off attitude, the vice president's lieutenants rejoiced. Gore's "no comment" was accompanied by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, at the candidate's side, assailing Bush's credibility. It fits the ad hominem attack on the Republican candidate that has replaced discussion of issues.
Contrary to the caricature of Bush in Washington's drawing rooms as a tongue-tied dolt, he has emerged from the harsh crucible of non-stop campaigning as the GOP's most effective candidate since Ronald Reagan. Republican skeptics had feared that with the election in doubt, he would now abandon issues and imitate his father's unfortunate propensity for cheerleading.
He has not. Near the end of each political speech, he launches a protracted call for tax cuts -- just as Ronald Reagan did immediately before the 1980 election. Al Gore's campaign architects never imagined that after 20 years of being the target of unending assault by the liberal establishment, the tenets of Reaganism would exert such popular appeal.
Nor did they dream that four days before the election, Bush would be in Morgantown seeking to pin down a victory in overwhelmingly Democratic West Virginia. That may explain reversion to the politics of personal abuse, relying on courthouse politicians from Maine to help save the day with a November surprise.