Seesaw campaign begins for Gore

Bill Bradley is getting better press lately, but it's early, and tide

Al Gore should be grateful.

The vice president has had a rough past few weeks - bad press, sagging polls, quiet grumbling by Democratic insiders that he's running a weak campaign and undermining the party's chances of retaking Congress.

Then his boss made that embarrassing phone call to The New York Times, confirming the obvious: that Al Gore is not a relaxed, informal campaigner and needs to loosen up.

If Mr. Gore's selection as the Democratic nominee for president in 2000 appears well-nigh inevitable - based on his formidable fund-raising machine, endorsements from virtually all important Democrats, big lead in polls, and a killer rsum - it was also inevitable that, at some point, the "smooth sailing" stories would turn sour.

The news media love a good battle, and everyone loves an underdog. And so it was entirely predictable that at some point reporters would turn to Gore's only rival for the Democratic nomination, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and discover that, by golly, the man does have a political pulse.

Senator Bradley did unexpectedly well in first-quarter fund-raising (though only half as well as Gore), reporters began to show up at his campaign events, his polls picked up.

But it is Gore's good fortune that this Bradley boomlet took place long before most average folks are paying attention to the 2000 campaign. And before long, analysts predict, there will be a mini-backlash against Bradley, the equal-and-opposite reaction that follows any positive surge in coverage of a candidate.

"Sooner or later there will be focus on Bradley, and I'm talking negative focus," says Stu Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. "Right now, he's the beneficiary of all the anti-Gore stuff. What's positive stuff on Bradley is that he's for teamwork and hard work and honesty and racial healing. But that talk is starting to fade."

While Bradley scored points by saying he's for "big ideas" (like racial harmony) while Gore is for "little ideas" (such as fighting traffic jams), Bradley has also taken flak for not being able to follow up with specifics.

"The reality is Bill Bradley has talked about big problems, but I don't think he's offered any solutions to those problems," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, an informal adviser to the Gore campaign.

Meanwhile, Gore's bad run has spurred him to action: He's shaken up his campaign apparatus by bringing on a new, high-powered campaign manager, former House Democratic whip, Rep. Tony Coelho of California, also a formidable fund-raiser. He's begun a series of detailed policy speeches, beginning May 16 with the unveiling of a seven-part plan for education. And his advisers are talking about moving up the formal launch of his campaign to next month.

Of course, over the next months, Gore and Bradley are likely to go through a bit of a see-saw act, one's up one week, down the next, even if Bradley never truly gets close to Gore in pre-primary polls of Democratic voters. It's all in the horse-race nature of how the media cover politics.

Still, some Democratic activists see potential danger signs for Gore looming on the horizon. Because Gore faces only Bradley in competition for the nomination - a one-on-one situation that's rare for an election year when the White House is being vacated - Bradley wins virtually all the anti-Gore vote. Any backlash against the Clinton White House's scandal-a-minute tenure goes straight to Bradley.

In Iowa, Democratic Party chair Rob Tully said on television last weekend that if Bradley wins 40 percent of the vote in the February 2000 Iowa caucuses - the first real test of strength for the nomination - then Bradley will win the expectations game and "make this a race" for Gore.

Ditto for New Hampshire, where contrarian voters, as in Iowa, take pride in bucking conventional wisdom and backing underdogs. If Bradley does well in the first-in-the-nation primary next February, he could seriously undermine Gore's prospects; losing New Hampshire may not be enough to cost Gore the nomination, but it could soften him up for the general election.

Recent history shows just such a precedent: In 1984, Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado jolted the front-runner, former Vice President Walter Mondale, by winning the New Hampshire primary. Mr. Mondale went on to win the nomination anyway, but he lost the general election.

While Gore may prefer to liken himself to another recent vice president, George Bush, who succeeded in winning the presidency, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says Gore can't just follow the old Bush playbook all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

When Mr. Bush ran, polls showed that by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans wanted the Reagan administration for four more years.

Today, Ms. Lake told a recent Monitor breakfast, if a pollster asks people, "Do you want four more years of Bill Clinton?" less than a majority say yes. And only 41 percent say they want the same policies.

"I think it requires [Gore] to form a different agenda," says Ms. Lake. "It requires him to get out there and form some distinctions."

But, she adds, the Gore campaign has come to realize this need.

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