The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, CA)   Sunday, February 13, 2000

For president: The Bee Recommends ...

This year's early, March 7 election presents some puzzling prospects for California voters, particularly when considering presidential candidates.  Though billed as an open or "blanket" primary, selection of party presidential nominating delegates will be closed.  Only the votes of people already registered as a Republican or a Democrat will count in allocating delegates.

Yet any qualified voter can vote for president, selecting any candidate.  That tally is sometimes derided as a simple "beauty contest" since it awards no delegates.  But it's an important expression of the public will that voters who aren't registered either as Democrat or Republican still take very seriously.

Because different voters will go to the polls with different intentions and possibilities, we offer these endorsements in both major party races.

John McCain: A man of proven substance

Only a short time ago, the country's political elite were ready to cede the Republican presidential nomination to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.  His sterling political pedigree, amiable demeanor and seeming electability generated a flood of donations and endorsements.  California Republicans were eager to enlist.

But Bush's inevitability got stuck in the snows of New Hampshire, where actual voters in the first GOP primary looked long at all the candidates and responded resoundingly in favor of Sen. John McCain.  Suddenly, the judgment of voters at least temporarily eclipsed Bush's $70 million war chest and the endorsements collected from 27 governors, 37 senators and 175 members of the House.

And that is precisely the role campaigns are designed to play, testing candidates and exposing them to voters.  In looking beyond Bush's attractiveness, voters have begun to examine the foundations of presidential qualifications. It is small wonder that McCain scores well on that test.

Bush and McCain display significant differences on policy and style, but the distinction that matters most is far more fundamental.  McCain has an overall record of accomplishment and service that commends him for the office.  Bush does not.

Though Bush partisans cite his tenure as chief executive of the nation's third most populous state, his record as Texas governor is modest.  He has served a term and a half in the role, which by design entails less responsibility than most governorships.  He has been clear-eyed about the crucial role of education and has reached out admirably to all the citizens of Texas -- a record of racial and ethnic inclusiveness McCain has yet to demonstrate -- but boasts no substantial legislative or policy legacy he can truly call his own.  His earlier record as an oilman and baseball team owner is undistinguished.

McCain by contrast has served 17 years in elected office, accumulating a solid record of accomplishment.  Not infrequently, he has been willing to battle powerful interests for the public; his signature crusade for campaign finance reform is a primary example, as was his early stance against tobacco interests.  His nuanced understanding of global affairs contrasts sharply with Bush's lack of experience.  He has a steady view of national defense requirements, and his military record and imprisonment as a POW in North Vietnam have justly captivated voters.

Because of his demonstrated substance, we believe McCain when he pledges to devote budget surpluses mainly to Social Security reform and debt reduction.  Because of his lack of experience and seasoning, we are disquieted when Bush makes reckless tax cut promises.  Thus does the contrast in experience and demeanor extend to a wide range of questions.

Although we are only at the opening threshold of the campaign for president, we may already be near the end of the nominating process.  Much will be determined by what happens March 7 -- including, importantly, in California's primary.  Because only voters already registered as Republicans will be counted in awarding the state's GOP delegates, all of whom will go to the winner, the system favors Bush.  But the facts favor Sen. John McCain, and conscientious Republican voters hold the difference.

Al Gore: A record of prosperity and progress

Suppose the country could choose the best parts of Bill Clinton's presidency and leave the sex scandals behind.  Think voters would be interested?

Of course they would, and while that precise choice isn't available, voters can express that aspiration by backing the man who has been Clinton's vice president for the past eight years: Al Gore.

Not many voters will spend time carefully parsing distinctions between Gore's health care plans and those of Sen. Bill Bradley, his opponent.  Fewer still are likely to study roll-call votes to determine who supported which version of what bill way back when.  Instead, most voters attracted to their side of the primary will see two decent, mainstream Democrats running for president and wonder how best to choose between them.

Gore plainly reflects the pragmatic and intelligent "New Democrat" approach Clinton has made his own -- the kind of new thinking that has seen the administration take the lead even on traditionally Republican issues such as deficit reduction, welfare reform and crime.  It incorporates the kind of deft management that has helped tuned the nation's economy to a precision pitch, yielding the impressive catalog of accomplishments Clinton claimed at his last State of the Union address: fast and sustained growth, low unemployment, fewer Americans in poverty, lower crime rates, smaller welfare rolls, fewer teen births and record budget surpluses replacing once-huge budget deficits.

On all those fronts, Gore has worked in tandem with the president, often leading administration efforts.  He has been, by many accounts, the most trusted and involved vice president in history; his election surely could be seen as continuation and advancement of the economic, social and foreign policies of the administration.  In most ways, that's a plus.

But does that mean voters can truly choose a Bill without a Monica?  Not quite.  Gore doesn't incorporate all of the president's strengths, nor avoid all his failings.  He isn't half the politician Clinton is; he lacks both the president's formidable personal charm and his ability to connect with audiences.  Jokes about Gore's wooden demeanor have become a national clich for a very good reason: They're basically true.  His lack of touch is a significant liability for any politician.

And while Gore seems squeaky clean on the marital front, he has suffered missteps in ethical judgments of his own.  His fund-raising misadventures and willingness to twist history into convenient shapes give us pause. But on balance, his demonstrated mastery of both the theory and practice of government make him a clear choice over Bradley.

Bradley's unconventional approach to presidential campaigning captured considerable interest this primary season.  A thoughtful senator turned thoughtful campaigner, his call for a deliberate and rational election process resonated with many voters grown weary of scorched-earth politics.  Sadly, Bradley hasn't sustained that momentum.  The test of the campaign found him wanting in judgment, in focus and perhaps even in desire.

In the final analysis, government and politics are fundamentally practical affairs. Senators who can't count votes don't get ahead; presidents who can't build coalitions leave few legacies.  As a wise old pol once observed, "In this world, the work of the Lord gets done by the hands of men."  In the Democratic primary, the stronger hands are Al Gore's.

Reprinted by Permission of The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, CA).  All Rights Reserved.

The following were involved in The Sacramento Bee's endorsement decision: Editor Howard Weaver, Deputy Editor Mark Paul, Associate Editor Robert Mott, Associate Editor Ginger Rutland, Associate Editor Susanna Cooper, Associate Editor Tom Philp, Cartoonist Rex Babin, Political Columnist John Jacobs, Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez and Publisher Janis Heaphy.