Gore's summer chore: Inspire the party faithful

From environmentalists to unions, dedicated Democrats seem ho-hum about the vice president.

Vice President Al Gore needs to fire up the Democratic faithful.

From union workers to environmentalists to women, some of the most crucial Democratic constituencies, Mr. Gore is struggling to ignite the kind of passionate loyalty that propels activists to not only get out and vote, but to motivate others as well.

They're the ones that provide critical support on election day, manning phone banks, driving car pools, and passing out leaflets at precincts. Without them, the Democrats could be in real trouble come November.

That's raised alarms in top Democratic circles and given political analysts pause.

"He has some problems with his core constituency," says pollster John Zogby. "He's nowhere near where he needs to be with women."

And that's after pulling even this week with Texas Gov. George W. Bush in several national polls.

But other Democrats aren't worried. It's still very early in the process. They also believe it's appropriate for the party faithful to question their nominee now, before this summer's convention. They point to 1988, when Gov. Michael Dukakis soared in the polls over then-Vice President George Bush, as he struggled with the "wimp" factor.

A few months later, it was an entirely different game. Mr. Dukakis peaked early, leaving a rejuvenated Mr. Bush to take the presidency. Some Democratic analysts are confident the same scenario will play out once Gore emerges from the Democratic convention.

"[Democrats] will have to turn out and mobilize for him; they don't have anywhere else to go," says Anna Greenberg of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "I just don't see them holding back."

People like Paul Steinwandel provide fodder for that theory.

During the primary, he proudly hoisted high his Steelworker's Union placard at a rally for Gore in Buffalo. But since then, the mechanic at the Lackawanna Steel Mill in New York's Erie County has wavered. For him, the moment of dismay came when Gore decided to support permanent trade relations with China.

"Betrayed is a good word to use there," Mr. Steinwandel says. On that day, he was looking for an alternative.

But now he says he not only plans to vote for Gore, but will work to make sure others do as well.

"You gotta look at the big picture, there's a lot more to it than just anger," he says. "We can't afford to have a Republican-controlled government. That would scare me."

The Democrats are also making a concerted effort to improve Gore's image, launching a 10-week, $25 million ad campaign leading up to the convention.

But Republicans have been quick to use that to raise questions about Gore's character - the very thing that's hurt him, particularly with women and independents.

The Democrats are funding part of the campaign with soft money - the unlimited contributions given to parties that can be used for issue ads.

Republicans have been quick to resurrect the e-mail Gore sent to Bush shortly after the primary, in which he proposed that neither use soft money.

"It's another reminder that the vice president does not hold any convictions that can't easily be changed," says Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman.

Gore's camp says that Bush never accepted the challenge, and thus it is moot. And, they contend, the Republicans violated the spirit of the ban almost as soon as it was proposed by running a $1.5 million soft-money campaign against Gore in California.

But the perception that Gore sometimes talks out of both sides of his mouth for political expedience has cost him. While the environmental establishment has lined up behind the vice president, some grass-roots conservationists are making it clear they're dissatisfied.

While the Clinton-Gore administration might have talked a good green game, they contend, it has not done enough for the environment. As a result, they say they're going to back the Green Party's Ralph Nader.

But top environmentalists are already working to reverse that. And they maintain that it's only a small minority of the 9 million environmentalists who are unhappy with the vice president.

"Our feeling is a vote for Nader is not a principled stand, because that could well help elect George W. Bush." says Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, which endorsed Gore last week.

A recent Zogby poll had Gore beating Bush, just barely. When it turned into a three-way matchup with Nader, the crusading consumer advocate took enough votes from the vice president to tip the balance toward Bush.

But many Democrats still aren't worried. While they believe it will be a tough contest down to the end, they point out that it is early in the process.

Several recent polls show many Americans still don't know where either candidate stands on the issues. The conventional wisdom says Bush has personality and the image of "bold leader" on his side. But Gore's more in line with the public when it comes to views on gun control, healthcare, education, and Social Security.

When those differences become clear, Democratic strategists are hoping the "undecideds" will break in favor of the vice president.

A weekly gauge of the electorate done by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government shows how fluid the situation is. Last week, 71 percent said they were unaware that Bush had pulled ahead in the polls a few weeks ago, despite all of the news coverage. And a full 58 percent said they "haven't picked a candidate yet."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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