Hate crimes backlash hits Bush

Gore and his team start the spin cycle as the Electoral College vote tilts their way. Buchanan blasts gay marriage in Vermont.

By Alicia Montgomery

Published October 13, 2000 9:29AM (EDT)

George W. Bush might want to consider sticking to foreign policy in the next debate. While Al Gore gnaws on the governor's entire Texas record, Bush is taking a beating over his debate comments concerning hate crimes laws, the New York Times reports. During the contest, Bush responded to questions about Texas' hate crimes law and black death-by-dragging victim James Byrd this way: "We've got [a hate crimes law] in Texas, and guess what?" he said. "The three men who -- who murdered James Byrd. Guess what's going to happen to them? They're going to be put to death."

Not only did that response -- and the governor's jovial delivery -- upset those who already suspected him of being thoughtless on crime and punishment issues, it also revived scrutiny of Bush's failure to support a proposed Texas hate crimes law in 1999. That bill had the backing of Byrd's daughter, Renee Mullins, who said that Bush isn't being honest if he claims to be in favor of hate crimes laws. "He's not practicing what he's preaching," she said. "I just went to him last year and he didn't support me. So how could he support one?" Mullins claimed that Bush turned a deaf ear to her concerns in a meeting the two had last year. "I pleaded with him," she said.

A Bush campaign spokesman, Dan Bartlett, defended the governor's inaction on that bill -- which sought to cover hate crimes based on sexual orientation -- noting that Texas already has a 1993 hate crimes bill on the books.

Team Gore in spin cycle
The hate crimes question is just one of a list of perceived vulnerabilities in Bush's debate performance that Gore forces are seeking to exploit. According to USA Today, the vice president's campaign has accused the Texas governor of making several "serious errors" in Wednesday's debate. In addition to questions about his stand on hate crimes, campaign chairman Bill Daley said Bush wrongly claimed that all three perpetrators of the Byrd slaying were sentenced to death (one received a life sentence), and was also mistaken in the belief that American military personnel are overrepresented in Bosnia. On the Byrd matter, Bush communications chief Karen Hughes said the governor simply "misspoke." That wasn't good enough for Daley, who insisted that Bush "tried to mislead the American people" on these issues.

Feeling better about Bush
Despite the blasts from the Gore campaign, Bush's debate performance reassured many Americans. The Los Angeles Times reports that confidence in Bush's abilities rose to new levels in the wake of the debate, with 70 percent of voters who participated in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted right after the contest agreeing that Bush has the intelligence and knowledge to run the nation. Many Republicans feel that Bush turned the last corner on his road to the White House with his newfound command of foreign policy. "Until he got up to the plate and faced Gore, people were going to wonder if he was ready," said Tom Cole, chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. "Now they are saying they are both competent."

The big picture
It's too early for the Bush camp to break out the champagne, however, because the Republican candidate still has a long way to go in the race for Electoral College votes. The New Republic reports that though Bush has more states locked up at this point, the delegate count still favors Gore. The vice president has the advantage in the Northeast and California, while Bush dominates the heartland and the South. The current projected electoral vote count is Gore 220 to Bush 167, with 151 too close to call. The following states are still up for grabs: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin.

While the electoral vote is ultimately more important than the popular vote, it can be just as volatile. The individual state polls used to calculate electoral advantage have varying degrees of accuracy, and may be a bit slower to reflect changes in momentum than the national tracking polls.

Buchanan blasts gay marriages
While he's not showing up on any electoral maps, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan is fighting on several fronts of the "cultural war" all by himself. The Associated Press reports that Buchanan has leapt into the middle of the same-sex marriage debate, exhorting his supporters in Vermont to overturn that state's approval of gay civil unions. Calling homosexuality an "unnatural and immoral lifestyle," Buchanan said that an Election Day victory for local opponents of the law would send an important message to the nation. "If they can win a victory here in November, that will resonate all across America," he said Thursday. "And I think you will give heart to other Americans who are fighting this same battle. I'm proud to be here and stand beside these guys."

Buchanan disputed the notion that Vermont's civil union debate is a local issue that he shouldn't be involved in, and blasted the major-party candidates for standing on the sidelines. "I think if I'm running for national office, you have a right to know my views," Buchanan said. "And I think candidates who will not come up here and express their views are guilty of moral timidity."

On the trail
Bush: Michigan.
Buchanan: Maryland.
Gore: Iowa and Michigan.
Nader: Florida and New York.

Presidential poll positions
Major-party candidates:

  • Gore 45 to Bush 44 (USA Today/CNN/Gallup Oct. 9-11).
  • Bush 43 to Gore 43 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 9-11).
  • Bush 48 to Gore 45 (Washington Post/ABC News Oct. 6-9).
  • Gore 43 to Bush 42 (CBS News/New York Times Oct. 6-9).
  • Gore 44 to Bush 43 (Pew Center for the People and the Press Oct. 4-8).
  • Gore 44 to Bush 41 (Newsweek Oct. 4-6).

    Third-party candidates:

  • Nader 2 to Buchanan 1 (USA Today/CNN/Gallup Oct. 9-11).
  • Nader 4 to Buchanan 1, Browne 1 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 9-11).
  • Nader 3 to Buchanan 1 (Washington Post/ABC News Oct. 6-9).
  • Nader 4 to Buchanan 2 (CBS News/New York Times Oct. 6-9).
  • Nader 5 (Pew Center for the People and the Press Oct. 4-8).
  • Nader 5 to Buchanan 2 (Newsweek Oct. 4-6).

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  • Alicia Montgomery

    Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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