Stuck in the starting gate?
Al Gore learns that mistakes are more glaring--and dangerous--because he's the No. 1 contender. And are those Bill Bradley's footsteps he's hearing?
By Karen Tulmulty/Washington
March 29, 1999
Al Gore knew he was coming off a bad week, so he wasted little time trying to charm the 165 United Auto Workers union leaders he met last Monday in a smoke-choked Des Moines, Iowa, hotel conference room. "I know what you can do. You know why I'm here," he said. "We need to talk." But as he spoke, an audience that started out polite but skeptical turned hostile. Gore twice deflected questions about whether the global-warming treaty he championed would send jobs overseas and instead served up encomiums about saving the planet. Then Mike Edwards, the assembly-line worker who asked the questions, gave up and turned away. "Bill Bradley's starting to look better all the time," he muttered.
Gore deserves credit for speaking his mind and refusing to pander to the union. It's just that he speaks his mind so badly. And despite the differences Gore and the union have had over trade, this was hardly the reception you'd expect party stalwarts to give a front runner so invincible that he's scared every Democrat except the former New Jersey Senator out of the race. Gore is rapidly locking up party support and endorsements (Senate minority leader Tom Daschle last week, House minority leader Dick Gephardt two weeks ago); his potential challenger from the left, Jesse Jackson, dropped out; he maintains a gaudy fund-raising edge; and he is so close to Bradley on the issues that it's hard to see how the insurgent will make his mark.
But oddly, Gore's apparent inevitability is casting an early spotlight on his vulnerabilities--and helping fast-forward the entire election cycle. Some of Gore's problems come with his job, which has a history of diminishing the men who hold it, but the most glaring are of his own making--beginning with the assumption that he could set the game's pace, seizing his moment to step from the mottled shadow of Bill Clinton and lay out his vision for the country. Gore's moment is now. Miss it, nervous Democratic veterans say, and he could squander his chance to define the election. Worse, Gore's gaffes and missteps, made all the more conspicuous when he is virtually alone on the stage, could harden into a perception that he is not up to the job.
The early polls that show Gore running behind both George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole are not as worrisome to Democrats as are two deeper trends. First, the largely untested Texas Governor gets significantly higher leadership marks than Gore. Second, if the election were held today, Bush would not only thump Gore among Republicans and moderates but win about 1 out of 3 Democrats as well. Even Clinton has started sharing his misgivings about Gore's performance with political associates.
Meanwhile, Bradley has a new bounce in his step. Where Iowa Democrats grumble that they have seen little of Gore, Bradley is making the union-hall rounds. Former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who played with Bradley on the New York Knicks, will lend an assist, even giving pep talks to campaign workers. His first-quarter fund raising is likely to approach $4 million, proving he can play this game. A new TIME/CNN poll has Bradley cutting the gap 14 points between Gore and him, to 49% to 29%, in three weeks, raising a question: Are Gore's numbers down because people don't know him--or because they do?
The Vice President's own polls, advisers say, show voters know surprisingly little about him, considering that he has run three national campaigns and has figured in every big Clinton decision. "He's still an empty picture frame," says Harvard law professor Chris Edley, a regular at the strategy sessions that take place every two weeks or so at Gore's mansion. The plan is simple: grab credit for the good that has happened under Clinton, maintain distance from the bad and deliver a rationale that Gore is the right person to carry the country forward.
Latching onto the mantle of a popular President should not be so difficult. Clinton has gladly shared kudos for the economy with Gore, handing off such happy tasks as announcing fresh indicators of how rosy it all is. But cloning works only to a point. Clinton won voters' hearts with his poll-tested, microbrewed policies, but it can be jarring--or laughable--to see someone with a reputation for deep thought on arms control and the environment elbow aside Cabinet Secretaries to take a bow for improving concrete pavements, increasing lost-luggage compensation and offering a three-digit phone number for traffic-jam updates. Still, when voters sweep up all the crumbs, a Gore associate predicts, "they'll add up to something more thematic, something bigger."
The overused word for that something is vision, and you can hear the Vice President struggling to lay out his in the stump speech he has been test-driving recently in Iowa and New Hampshire. For better or worse, Gore himself came up with his new slogan, "Stand with me," a heavy-handed reminder of Gore's fidelity to the President through the rough sledding of the past year. But the issue now is not Gore's loyalty but his identity, so he rarely mentions Clinton directly. He is also branching out, morphing his well-known stands on the environment and technology into soft, warm pronouncements about urban sprawl, education, and, soon, aides say, health and elderly care. Says Edley: "He's working harder to explain to people why this matters to you and to the nation, and the still deeper message is to communicate why he personally cares about it."
That's where Gore has always had problems. Someone on his staff once had to tell him, "Sir, people think you clap funny. Put your fingers together." His pedantic style more often enervates than inspires. Last week in Sioux Falls, S.D., he drained the energy from a gymnasium full of 600 elementary schoolers by quizzing them on the merits of smaller class size. Four days later in New Hampshire, he numbed an expectant audience, which had come to hear about long-term health care, by opening his presentation with a long, awkward tutorial on Kosovo.
Gore has never learned the knack of talking about Gore. When he stumbles, it is spectacular. Two weeks ago, he made a legitimate claim that he was one of the Internet's earliest promoters and turned it into a audacious boast that he invented it. The gaffe damaged him in an area where his contrast with Clinton is favorable: credibility. Some blame for all this falls on Gore's jumbled and evolving campaign organization, which functions like a board of directors without a chairman, leaving his vice-presidential staff with the task of damage control. Still lacking is what one strategist calls the "mad genius"--the big-thinking Lee Atwater/James Carville/Dick Morris figure with a feel for the themes that will marry country and candidate. That role may be played in combination by pollster Mark Penn, media guru Bob Squier and Gore's savvy former chief of staff, Jack Quinn. But it's hard to be a genius by committee.
Whatever his problems, Gore would not trade places with anyone else in the field. "He's out in an exposed position, revving up for a real campaign," says Squier, noting that Bush, for all his appeal, has been "unwilling to leave home. He is not strengthening himself for what is going to be a very rough-and-tumble campaign." Maybe. But while no one will ever make it through a modern presidential campaign without battle scars, it would help Gore if so many of his weren't self-inflicted.
--With reporting by Michael Duffy/Washington and Sally B. Donnelly, with Gore in New Hampshire
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Cover Date: April 5, 1999
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