With Election Day approaching, the presidential race has taken a back seat to the current crisis in the Middle East, and the shifting focus could help decide a winner in this tight election.
Although the candidates’ messages are being relegated to the back pages of newspapers and the second story on TV, their viewpoints on foreign policy issues are now in the forefront.
Supporters of both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush say the conflict – and, more importantly, the United States’ role in handling it – will help their candidate. Both say that in times of crisis, the country looks for leadership and they will find it in their nominee.
Foreign policy was expected to be a clear winner for Gore, but Bush got a boost during last week’s second presidential debate when his grasp for names, places and events helped alleviate fears among some that he was a foreign policy lightweight.
With the Middle East crisis, the killing of 17 American soldiers in an attack on a U.S. naval ship in Yemen and the fall of Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic all on domestic radar screen, Bush gets a near-daily chance to try to show he knows his stuff.
Bush has been treading lightly, coming out in support of President Clinton’s policies in the Middle East in the second and third presidential debates. But in campaign appearances, he has also attempted to separate himself from the current administration, criticizing the United States’ actions in the peace process and its energy policies.
Foreign policy is “the one area that people haven’t had exposure to him and are trying to gauge where he stands,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “It’s demonstrating he’s got a grasp on foreign policy issues.”
Not everyone agrees.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman called Bush’s foreign policy answers at the second debate “pathetic,” because he basically just agreed with the Clinton administration’s policies.
He also said the debates’ impact might not matter.
“People trust Republicans more than Democrats to deal with foreign affairs and defense,” Mellman said. “But people prefer Al Gore to George W. Bush to deal with international crises. So the net effect is pretty small.”
The polls seem to reflect that dichotomy. When likely voters were asked last week which candidate would do a better job on foreign policy issues, Gore and Bush each received 45 percent, according to a Time/CNN poll.
When asked who would do a better job on the situation in the Middle East, Bush fared slightly better, 45 percent to 42 percent for Gore, but those numbers are still within the poll’s margin of error.
For their part, Democrats see the current Middle East crisis as a way to highlight Gore’s experience, emphasizing his role as a member of the national security team. `During the third presidential debate Tuesday in St. Louis, Gore made a point of noting that he broke from campaigning last week to be involved in the administration’s strategy for the Middle East.
Both candidates, however, pointedly refrained from specifics in answering a question about how they would handle the current Middle East crisis.
Gore supporters think his experience will benefit their cause in this tight race.
“The biggest factor people will look for in a time of crisis is experience,” said David Harris, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “George W. Bush has not yet dealt with foreign policy; Al Gore has for 24 years.”
But Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said this one bad month could not come at a worse time for the Democrats, who have touted eight years of foreign policy achievements and domestic prosperity .
Pipes said the current conflict has left some people feeling that the entire Oslo peace process, which has been a major focus of the Clinton administration, was based on false premises. He compared it to the 1980 presidential election and the Iran hostage situation, where the country’s mood on Election Day was tainted by a temporary international conflict.
“You can claim that drastic situations are on their way, but so far things have been pretty good,” he said. “Gore will want to look at eight years; Bush will want to look at eight days.”
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said that despite Clinton’s seeming success at reaching a cease-fire agreement this week at Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, voters have seen other agreements crumble – and they may be cynical of the benefits of just another signed piece of paper.
And if the cease-fire fails and the fighting continues, a lot of the blame may rest with Clinton, which could hurt Gore as well.
This conflict has the chance to be a negative for Bush if it raises the need in voters’ minds for someone with crisis- management experience, said Steven Livingston, associate professor of political communication at George Washington University.
“This isn’t like being the manager of the Texas Rangers,” said Livingston, referring to Bush’s former ownership of a major league baseball team. “We need someone up to par with foreign affairs.”
Another wild card is the vice presidential candidates.
Both are strong on Middle East issues, and are seen as potentially even stronger than the top of their tickets.
Republican candidate Dick Cheney was secretary of defense during the Persian Gulf War and is well versed in that region. His Democratic counterpart, Joseph Lieberman, is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But while foreign policy could have an impact in this close a race, many analysts think it might not matter all that much, even if events do stay in the spotlight during the final weeks of the campaign.
Even during the height of the conflict in Kosovo, the issue rarely broke 1 percent in polls on pressing issues for America, Livingston said.
And a look at the questions at the town hall debate in St. Louis showed that most undecided voters are more concerned with domestic issues such as health care, social security and education.
“The reality is,” Mellman said, that foreign policy “is not likely to be the decisive factor. Americans are mostly focused inward right now.”