ad info

 custom news
 Headline News brief
 daily almanac
 CNN networks
 on-air transcripts
 news quiz

CNN Websites
 video on demand
 video archive
 audio on demand
 news email services
 free email accounts
 desktop headlines

 message boards



 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

How Gore's campaign went off the rails

By Karen Tumulty and Michael Duffy

TIME magazine

September 27, 1999
Web posted at: 12:30 p.m. EDT (1630 GMT)

How's Al Gore feeling these days? Never better, if you ask anyone inside his campaign--pumped, working without notes, even taking his jacket off. And those polls, the ones showing the Vice President suddenly running slightly behind Bill Bradley in New Hampshire and in a dead heat with him in New York, or suggesting Bradley is the better at beating George W. Bush? Not to worry. As the glum figures rolled in earlier this month, Gore told a top adviser, "I'm connecting. I feel it. We just gotta keep doing what we're doing."

To many anxious Democrats, it seems the only people Gore is connecting with these days are TV gag writers. It isn't just that Gore is running an old-fashioned, adviser-laden operation that is high on endorsements but low on energy; it is that he has squandered formidable leads in two categories that matter: money and sheer inevitability. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan endorsed Bradley last week, the New York Senator said publicly what many in the party have been whispering about Gore: "He can't be elected President."

Moynihan is one of only a handful of Capitol Hill Democrats putting their names behind Bradley, while Gore's campaign announces new lists of endorsements almost daily. But when it comes to placing their own futures on the line, other Democrats are hedging their bets. Even as House minority leader Dick Gephardt works hard to shore up Gore support among labor and in Iowa, he will not do anything to imperil his chances of taking back the House--which is why he is not squeezing hard on wavering members. "You've got to do what you need to get re-elected," the leader told one. "That's what I want the most." And Gephardt is working on a strategy in which his own goal is not tied to the outcome of the presidential campaign--putting money and muscle in close races where coattails won't save the Democrat.

Inside the Gore camp, things are increasingly fractious. In one particularly nasty meeting recently, campaign chairman Tony Coelho lashed out at his senior staff, and there are once again hints that firings are in the offing. Gore's team redoubled its efforts, cramming September with back-to-back fund raisers, but it has not dispelled rumors that third-quarter reports could show the campaign with less cash in the bank than Bradley has.

Gore operatives argue, rightly, that it is far better to face the Bradley Moment in late September than in late January. Sources tell TIME they are moving onto a war footing. Last week the campaign stepped up its plan for "engaging" Bradley, distributing talking points to Gore troops in New England. Gore officials say Bradley is already offering a variety of targets, including an embrace of gay rights that could backfire on that community, his vote for a school-voucher experiment and what they say is his mixed record on campaign-finance reform. More jabs are sure to come.

What they need now is a seawall, one that would prevent Bradley's support from washing beyond where it is strongest at the moment: a hard core of affluent liberal men from the Northeast, according to the TIME/CNN poll. The poll shows that Bradley is weakest among Democrats with a high school degree or less (26% to Gore's 58%), who make less than $35,000 annually (26% to 51%), are union members (27% to 63%) and who live in the South and West. "It's very elite," says a Gore adviser of Bradley's core group. "In the South, Midwest and everywhere else but California, that's not who the Democratic primary voter is."

Maybe not, but last week several Gore officials were worried enough to talk privately of perhaps losing New Hampshire--a stunning concession at this stage--and maybe even New York. All of which leaves them counting on the back pages of the primary-season calendar. That is a far different scenario than the quick blowout they expected earlier this year when they decided not to take on Bradley at all because several key players, including Gore, thought he might drop out.

That was not the only miscalculation by a candidate who cites chaos theory as a favorite scientific principle. Gore spent the first six months of 1999 surrounded by a virtual asteroid belt of orbiting pollsters, message advisers, family retainers, backseat drivers and policy hangers-on. All wanted a say in campaign strategy, but few were committed enough to give up their day jobs--many of which involved deep, complicated ties to other politicians and corporate interests. Amid all this advice, the one tip Gore might have done well to take came early on from Bill Clinton, who told others that Gore should have moved his campaign operation back to Tennessee. Instead, Gore set up shop blocks from the White House on K Street--a concrete-and-glass canyon that is to lobbyists what Wall Street is to stock traders.

While a bloated, imperial operation could hardly be expected to pick up on warning signs, Gore insiders particularly fault Mark Penn, the lead among Gore's half a dozen pollsters. Penn shares his energies with the President, Hillary Clinton and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. Over and over, Penn told the Vice President that Bradley posed little or no threat, that Bush was not as far ahead as public polls suggested and that most voters were confusing the Texas Governor with his father. At one point, when Penn was insisting that Gore was no farther than 10 points behind Bush, a campaign official quietly asked another pollster to check Penn's work. The number came back: Gore down by 18. Penn declined to be interviewed but let it be known through an intermediary that his position is secure.

The job of mopping up the mess that Gore made of his own campaign fell to Coelho, a party operative recruited in May. He has seized control of Gore's schedule and made sure that no one but he and message guru Carter Eskew have day-to-day access to the candidate. So determined is Gore to divorce himself from the details that when his wife Tipper recently raised a question about the campaign, Gore answered, only partly joking, "Have you talked to Tony?"

The even harder task may be Eskew's. Hired by Coelho to fix the message, he faces the challenge of convincing voters tired of Clinton that a Gore presidency would amount to something more than Clinton's third term. Gore has spent most of the year laying out proposals that are both bold and unconventional, but they have been smothered in windy speeches and 20-point plans. The tactic was one that Penn used to great effect in Clinton's 1996 campaign: polling a raft of proposals, then tying together the ones that tested safely above 80% approval. The approach worked for Clinton, but it seemed to diminish Gore, who had come to the Clinton Administration with a reputation as a visionary. "The biggest single strategic mistake we have made is putting him out there early with all these ideas," says a Gore adviser. "Almost nobody was listening. They want to know who he is."

So once more, Gore is starting over. Working the final draft of his health-care plan, Gore rejected eight of the 13 options laid before him and made a headline-grabbing promise in early September to ensure that every child in America has health insurance by the end of his first term. "This is the kind of change people want!" he told his aides. But in a campaign that has already seen several new starts, Gore seems to realize that this may be his last chance. "It's really a race," he told a friend last week. "Now we've got to go in and win."

--With reporting by John F. Dickerson/ Washington


Cover Date: October 4, 1999

Search CNN/AllPolitics
          Enter keyword(s)       go    help

© 1999 Cable News Network, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.
Who we are.