If your campaign is lagging, stir up some trouble. That's been part of Sen. Albert Gore Jr.'s strategy from the beginning, and it certainly has been a part of the Democratic candidate's game plan leading up to today's New York primary. Some political observers have wondered, however, if his guerrilla politics might cause enough resentment to keep Mr. Gore from picking up the No. 2 spot on the party's ticket in July.
From the earliest debates, Mr. Gore has been tweaking his Democratic rivals on everything from being soft on defense to being neophytes on foreign policy.
Both Gov. Michael Dukakis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson felt Gore's pit-bull tactics in New York. Gore hopes his aggressive style will improve his standing among Jewish voters, pick up some points from the ``undecided'' column, and possibly yank away some of Governor Dukakis's supporters.
``Anybody who is in politics knows what is going on here,'' says Al Jackson, a Democratic activist. ``This is an important race for Al Gore. It's important he be seen as a player and it's important he be noticed.''
But in the longer term, Gore could be burning important bridges. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo has sent warnings to the Gore campaign that assailing the Rev. Mr. Jackson may backfire. Mr. Cuomo said in a magazine interview that Gore's aggressiveness hurts his chances of being the vice-presidential nominee. ``At the very least,'' Cuomo said on another occasion, ``Jesse will likely have a veto over that [vice-presidential] role.''
Gore has hammered away hard in criticizing a statement made by Mr. Dukakis in an interview with a New York newspaper. Asked if he could think of a circumstance when a strategic nuclear response against the Soviet Union might be warranted, Dukakis said he could. Gore immediately jumped through the opening.
``The uncertainty [concerning US use of nuclear weapons] in the minds of Soviet leaders is itself a strategic asset,'' Gore told reporters at a press conference. ``We have always regarded it as such, NATO has always regarded it as such, and that is why we have never said to the Soviet Union, `We will launch a first strike under these circumstances or under those circumstances....'''.
The Dukakis campaign responded that the governor had not heard the word ``strategic'' in the question, and that Dukakis was referring only to battlefield nuclear weapons.
Unsatisfied, Gore continued the attack on the Democratic front-runner. ``The phrase strategic weapon was used by the questioner ... [it] was clearly audible ... now why it disappeared on the tape recording made by the Dukakis campaign, you'll have to ask them,'' Gore said. ``He ought to have the gumption to admit that he made a mistake.''
Despite Gore's aggressive - some say negative - approach, few political observers think the damage is either extensive or permanent.
``It's not a problem for him at all,'' says Gary Nordlinger, president of his own political consulting firm. ``It's no more of a problem for him than it was for Reagan and Bush in 1980. People always assume there is bad blood between candidates in politics. These guys are pros and basically make up pretty quickly after an election is over.''
Al Jackson, who is the political director for the Committee for an Effective Congress, agrees. ``I think bridge burning is a problem only when neither person needs the other. If Mike Dukakis is the nominee and he thinks Al Gore would be the best person to help him get to the White House, I think they will be best of friends very quickly.''
Gore already may be trying to patch things up. After Saturday's League of Women Voters debate in Rochester, N.Y., Gore tried to get Jesse Jackson's attention when Jackson was talking to reporters from the stage. Gore jokingly wanted to ask Jackson when he was going to relinquish the microphone. Jackson didn't call on the senator, but the two embraced when Jackson left the stage.
Al Jackson thinks Gore has pursued a very shrewd strategy, the success of which is demonstrated by the fact that the senator is still in the race. He says the strategy may actually enhance Gore's political fortunes. ``It may give him the opportunity ... to be the guy who goes out to light the fires. Mike Dukakis clearly isn't going to be that person if he is the nominee. So maybe Al Gore is giving himself a role as a strong vice-presidential candidate by being the guy who can go out and be the hatchet man.''