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If there was any doubt in George W. Bush's mind about what he's up against, last week ended it. He's opposing not just Al Gore but the full power of the Clinton-Gore administration, which is why he has to try to find a way to make an issue of its political character to have a chance to win.

When the Texas governor arrived here in his rival's home city last week, he had just learned that the vice president had called on the president to release supplies from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to relieve the threat of winter shortages and high prices in the fuel oil market. Gore's move was prompted by private discussions with Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, and it was predictably followed by an announcement from President Clinton that he was acting on Gore's suggestion.

Bush promptly denounced it as "short-term politics at the expense of national security," and many editorials agreed. Nonetheless, a potential liability for Gore had been pre-empted by timely, coordinated administration action.

That night, reporters traveling with the Bush campaign but dining for a change with Gore operatives found the Democrats euphoric, not just about turning the tables on what they called "the oilmen's ticket" of Bush and Dick Cheney but about the overall political situation.

Bush was in the midst of the best week he has had since the conventions, but the Gore people recited a list of recent polls, showing Gore with double-digit leads in Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and - most notably - Michigan. They said they had stepped up their ad buys in Ohio and Florida because of encouraging polls in two states Bush has to carry to have a realistic chance to win. And they said they were competing seriously in Nevada, part of what had been considered Bush's Western base, and might soon do the same in Arizona.

All this, they reminded us, even before the intensive two-week debate schedule begins next Tuesday, where they expect Gore and his running mate, Joe Lieberman, to star.

Those debates offer Bush his last, best chance to change the dynamic of the campaign in his direction. Anticipating them, he has spent his campaign time revisiting the basic policy proposals he put forward in a series of well-received speeches over the previous 12 months. His aides maintain - and the evidence shows - that Bush's education, Social Security and Medicare plans, for example, are at least as detailed as Gore's. And Bush is comfortable in describing them to voters in his "one on one" town meetings.

The Gore camp is equally confident, however, that in the debates, "Gore will expose the contradictions and holes in Bush's thinking." That remains to be seen. But it would be surprising if Bush can make Gore look inept in an issues discussion. The greater risk is that the vice president may come across as arrogant or overbearing.

If Bush is not to rely on Gore beating himself, however, he has to move the debate beyond an academic argument and tap into the public weariness with gridlock and partisanship in Washington. Whoever wins will face the prospect that the bills he submits will be rewritten in Congress. The critical question is who has the capacity to achieve consensus in what is certain to be a narrowly divided House and Senate.

And that is where the test of political character becomes critical; a president can lead only if other politicians believe that he keeps his word. Bush has a good record in that regard, both in Texas and in the campaign. But Gore has displayed a Clintonesque tendency to say or do whatever is expedient.

Eight months ago, he warned that tapping the SPR to influence the oil market would be futile because "all they (the OPEC countries) would have to do is cut back a little bit on supply." On the eve of the election, he advocates the same action he once denounced. Two weeks earlier, he was quick to exploit the report condemning the entertainment industry for marketing violence to youngsters, and equally quick to assure his Hollywood financial supporters that he was still their friend. Before that, there was the Elian incident, which made even the White House gag.

All this will influence the readiness of Congress to believe a President Gore would be dealing in good faith. The stalemate in domestic policy for the last three years reflects the loss of confidence that Clinton's word is his bond. Bush has to find a way to test whether Gore would bring more of the same.

Washington Post Writers Group

Copyright ` 1999

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