WASHINGTON -- Faced with continuing polls that make Texas Gov. George W. Bush seem to be the likely GOP presidential candidate in 2000, Democratic and Republican foes alike are in search of his political Achilles' heel.
It is a particularly difficult quest because Mr. Bush's strategy of sticking to generalities in wrapping himself in the mantle of "compassionate conservatism" has given them such slim pickings.
The latest example of the phenomenon is the way President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore jumped on Mr. Bush's published reaction to the recent church shooting in Fort Worth, Texas. Mr. Bush last week cut off a campaign swing and rushed back to Texas, deploring "a wave of evil passing through America" that he said could not be combatted by more gun-control legislation.
Of the attacker, Mr. Bush said, "I'd like to make sure people like him don't have guns," but added that the man "obviously was acting as a result of evil in his heart."
Comments from Gore
At the annual dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus two nights later, Mr. Gore cited the epidemic of mass shootings around the country this year. Playing on Mr. Bush's comment about "a wave of evil," Mr. Gore observed that "a lot of these types of tragedies have happened when evil met a wave of guns."
At the same event, Mr. Clinton cited statistics indicating that this country has the world's highest murder rate and that accidental shootings here cause nine times as many deaths of young people than such shootings in 20 other major industrial countries combined.
"If you believe this is about the human heart," Mr. Clinton said, "then you must believe . . . we are both more evil and more stupid than other countries." He conceded that "of course, something horrible happened to that man's heart . . . but we cannot use that as an excuse."
The Gore campaign and other Democrats also have criticized Mr. Bush for signing a law allowing Texans to carry concealed weapons.
Mr. Bush wants gun buyers to submit to instant background checks at gun shows to make sure they have no record of criminal behavior or mental instability. But under the present checking system, the FBI needs up to three business days to determine whether a gun applicant has a felony conviction.
The House, in considering a juvenile justice bill earlier this year, failed to include gun-control provisions sought by the Clinton administration. The Senate, however, incorporated several such provisions in its bill, which passed. Negotiations are underway to include them in the House's consideration of the Senate bill.
The sticking point, according to Bob Walker, president of Handgun Control Inc., is a provision concerning sales at gun shows and the amount of time to be permitted for background checks.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush continues to invoke the conservative Republican mantra that enforcement of existing laws, not major new gun-control laws, is needed to stem the tide of gun violence.
Yesterday, Mr. Bush announced a new program that's designed to crack down on gun crime in Texas. Its key features are aggressive prosecutions and maximum sentences for felons possessing and using guns.
Whether this will inoculate Mr. Bush against his Democratic critics in a time of nationwide furor over gun violence, however, is an open question.
He certainly can't count on it curbing their quest for his political Achilles' heel on this and other issues.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 9/22/99