Gov. George W. Bush seems to have scrapped his pledge to voters to "change the tone" in Washington from ugliness to happy, Smurfy optimism. In the last few weeks, Bush and myriad campaign representatives have lashed out at the character of Vice President Al Gore in harsh and personal terms.
In a conversation with reporters on the grounds of a parochial school in the L.A. neighborhood of Watts on Wednesday, Bush communications director Karen Hughes was asked how well Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., assumed the role of Gore in the mock-debates the campaign holds in a bunkhouse on Bush's ranch. "I think Sen. Gregg does a very good job of internalizing the vice president's arguments and phrases," Hughes said. "I say he does a very good job of being just as condescending as Al Gore is."
"We don't like him very much in debate prep!" she said, laughing. She said that the individuals who have worked on the debate with Bush include her, Gregg, chief strategist Karl Rove and media consultants Mark McKinnon and Stuart Stevens. Members of a "rotating group," including speechwriter Mark Gerson, foreign policy advisor Condoleezza Rice and others, pop in from time to time, she said.
Hughes said that when Gregg comes into the bunkhouse -- nicknamed "the gym" since it contains exercise equipment -- she and the rest of the debate team joke, "Which Al Gore are you going to be today?"
"You know we tracked the Gore reinvention story during the primary process: the Populist Al Gore, the Class Warfare Al Gore, the Nice Guy Al Gore. So we joke with Senator Gregg about that," said Hughes, whose boss began his campaign heralding himself as a "compassionate conservative," then switched to "a reformer with results" to face down primary opponent Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and eventually became the candidate of "real plans for real people" for his showdown with Gore.
"It sounds to me like the combination of an FBI investigation, sliding poll numbers and a lack of real issues to talk about has gotten to the Bush campaign," said Gore spokeswoman Kym Spell. "The fact that Karen Hughes would spend her time with reporters making personal attacks against the vice president is just another example of the mean-spiritedness of his campaign."
Spell added that she had heard that Hughes' young son was traveling with her on the Bush campaign trail; she said she was "surprised that Karen Hughes would make such personal negative attacks with her 13-year-old son in tow."