Al And W?S Balancing Act

Al Gore minced no words. The situation was too dire. Bill Bradley was coming on like a freight train, and every labor leader in the living room knew it. They were gathered secretly on a recent Friday night in a leafy Maryland suburb of Washington at the home of John Sweeney, president of the 13 million-member AFL-CIO. The guests were "IPs" (international presidents) considered "soft" by the Gore campaign--that is, wavering on endorsing him for the Democratic nomination. The vice president had stopped arguing that his victory was inevitable, or that he would necessarily be the stronger candidate in the fall of 2000. Instead, with Sweeney at his side, Gore was reduced to making a tribal appeal: you owe me. "I've been there for you," he told them. "Now I need you. Will you be there for me?"

We'll see. In Los Angeles this week, the AFL-CIO meets to decide whether to come to the rescue of Gore's faltering candidacy, or hold off making an endorsement--and deal him a crippling blow. In private meetings and public actions, Gore, President Bill Clinton and the entire administration are focused on selling the veep to what used to be called Big Labor. But the IPs aren't the only objects of the Big Schmooze. Gore, in fact, is desperate to win over and rely on the core--and often controversial--constituencies in the Democratic Party: big-city mayors, African-American leaders nationwide, gay activists, members of the Kennedy family.

George W. Bush, meanwhile, is running in the opposite direction, and in the opposite way: at times maneuvering against his own Republican Party, ignoring conservatives and picking fights with party big shots. In a speech before the Christian Coalition, he refused to cast his bread upon the waters, barely mentioning abortion and school prayer. He admonished House Republicans not to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor." And he said the GOP "too often has focused on the national economy to the exclusion of all else," thereby undercutting the House's tax plan and the opposition to Clinton's Patients' Bill of Rights, which passed with GOP votes. Hill leaders were furious--and so was conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. "The more Bush speaks, the more troubled I am becoming about his candidacy," Rush said. "Who wants a Republican moderate as president?"

It's shaping up as a profound irony of the Y2K campaign: Bill Clinton's "How to Get Elected" playbook--the one he followed to oust President George Herbert Walker Bush--isn't being used by Clinton's own protege, but by Bush's son. Casting about for an identity after eons of dithering and waste, Gore has more or less settled on becoming an old-fashioned, card-carrying, lunch-bucket Democrat--happily beholden to party insiders, even if he risks alienating swing voters who decide general elections. Bush, meanwhile, is following the Clinton model: a Southern governor with a well-thought-out theme and a package of practical programs, who doesn't mind picking fights with the arbiters of ideological purity in his own party as he focuses on winning key swing constituencies in the fall. In Bush's case, that means independents and women in states such as California and New York.

This may be the ultimate form of political revenge: Bush the Younger using the very weapons that defeated his father. Indeed, W's rise is an eerie mirror of Clinton's. As a young Democratic governor in the increasingly GOP-led South, Clinton learned to swim upstream in the conservative Reagan '80s. With other governors, he developed a sturdy New Democrat platform that could serve from announcement to inaugural. It eschewed tradition- al liberalism and the constituency groups that espoused it. Clinton favored the death penalty and tough new rules on welfare and free trade. There was, he said, a Democratic Third Way, which used government--but only for the benefit of those who were willing to be "responsible" parents, citizens and workers.

Now Bush is navigating in the currents of the Caring Clinton '90s. He is a self- described conservative, but one who says he has developed a compassionate Third Way that has little in common with the coldblooded spirit of the Hill-based GOP. He isn't afraid to wield the power of government. Indeed, if the program is focused enough, Bush relishes its use. He wants to increase the power of the Department of Education, for example, not shrink it. As Clinton did, the governor of Texas has fellow travelers: Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and governors such as John Engler of Michigan and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin.

There's no such Third Way for Gore. Though his life and career are Beltway-based (he was a representative and senator before becoming vice president), there was perhaps a time when Gore could have reached out beyond his base. It's gone. Now he has no choice but to burrow into the innards of the old-line Democratic Party in search of support. In a media-dominated era, Bradley in many ways has become the front runner, with more money and a better "narrative." He has momentum in the polls and appeal among the Abercrombie crowd on college campuses. Having quit the Senate and called politics "broken," Bradley can't help but be an "outsider," especially since he rarely has a nice word for Clinton, Gore or the seven-year record of their administration. Gore has to take what's left.

The Democratic-nomination race is shaping up as an echo of 1984, with the vice president in the role of Walter Mondale and Bradley as a better-funded and somewhat less frosty Gary Hart. Mondale, backed by some questionable spending and organizing in industrial states by Big Labor, won. But he was so tarred as a tool of Democratic "special interests" that he lost whatever minimal chance he had to beat President Ronald Reagan in the fall. "Sure, there's a downside to doing it this way," said a Gore adviser. "But the other downside risk is an even greater one. It's called losing."

So Gore's first order of business is Big Labor. The free-trading, tree-hugging vice president is striving to meet whatever union demands come his way. He has a solid history with the public-employee and service unions. That's not surprising, since Clinton-administration initiatives have tended to rely on state and local governments--and thus have swelled the ranks of government workers outside the Beltway. Gore is also well regarded by teachers. He was endorsed last week by the American Federation of Teachers, which belongs to the AFL-CIO, and by the National Education Association, whose members do not.

Gore is doing his best to solidify his union support. For the United Steelworkers of America, the vice president pressed for tough new measures against imported raw steel and "wire rod." Though he once decried the perfidy of the internal-combustion engine, Gore mounted no crusade when Clinton decided not to toughen fuel-efficiency standards for vans and sport utility vehicles--a change opposed by the Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers. Scouring New Hampshire for votes recently, Green Al Gore insisted that he was not opposed to selective logging in the White Mountains--a promise meant for the ears of the members of the United Paperworkers International Union local in Berlin, N.H.

The Teamsters were the toughest case, and that's where Clinton was deployed. The Teamsters' president, Jimmy Hoffa Jr., is demanding that the Justice Department end its oversight of the corruption-prone union, the largest in the AFL-CIO. Clinton last week not only addressed a Teamsters convention; he met with Hoffa privately--the first president since Richard Nixon to go behind closed doors with a Teamsters boss. No deals were made, administration sources said. But the symbolism was important. Though the union is adamantly against an endorsement, pro-Gore forces were hoping for an abstention on a key vote at this week's AFL-CIO convention.

The next order of business is to portray Gore as a fighter for core Democratic values. This week, NEWSWEEK has learned, Gore will air his first ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. On display is a man with political courage bred in the bone. His late father, the ad notes, was an early proponent of civil rights, unpopular in Tennessee. Young Albert, for this part, took a risky (for Tennessee) stand against the National Rifle Association. This is no ordinary pol, says the spot, but a brave Vietnam volunteer, former investigative reporter and champion of health care and education.

For the new Fighting Al, the nasty stuff comes next, of course. For months, despite internal warnings from his staff, Gore refused to acknowledge the Bradley threat. The veep's allies argued that there was little difference between the two on the issues, so why change horses? But that argument was easily turned on its head: if they're so similar, why not nominate a Democrat who is free of Bill Clinton's moral baggage?

Now the Gore team is scrambling to show that their man is the only true-blue Democrat in the race. They plan to make much of Bradley's voluntary departure from the Senate (though he served for 18 years) and his conference-call dalliances with mavericks such as Lowell Weicker and the late Paul Tsongas. They will portray their foe as a legislator who worked harder on business-friendly tax reform than "Democratic" issues such as health care, and who voted for the original Reagan budget cuts in 1981. They will attack him for his support of various education experiments that the teachers' unions consider anathema--and dare him to pick a fight with the educators.

Fighting Al's new team is making another, more emotional argument as well. It's reminiscent of the one Mondale forces made--successfully--against Hart: that the "outsider" is a frigid, distant figure who can't be trusted to be the soul of the party. It's unclear precisely why a stiff-limbed son of the Beltway is more suited to that role than a small-town guy who played pro ball in the NBA, but that's presumably why they pay consultants the Big Money.

The skirmishing began in earnest last weekend. Gore and Bradley shared the same dais for the first time in Des Moines, Iowa, and before they arrived, each got off a zinger. When Bradley called Gore "timid," Gore shot back: "I didn't walk away from the fight when Newt Gingrich took over the Congress. I didn't walk away from the fight when Reaganomics was up for a vote." For Iowans: "I didn't walk away from the fight when farmers needed farm credit." Key word: fight.

Down in Austin, Texas, Bush campaign insiders were looking on with quiet glee. Their ideal outcome: that Gore stumble over the finish line as Mr. Democrat. But Bush's general-election strategy isn't without risk. A look into the Clinton playbook shows why. Clinton didn't make his showy move against the party powers until after he had safely locked up the nomination in June 1992. That's when he picked his fight with Jesse Jackson, dissing Sister Souljah at a Rainbow Coalition conference.

Bush, by contrast, is lecturing the GOP's right-wing congressmen four months before the first nomination votes are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire. The governor's rivals immediately took to the airwaves and the Internet to ridicule Bush for being too popular--with Democrats. "Bush is cocky, and he's overreached this time," said a top adviser to publisher Steve Forbes.

The governor's handlers were concerned enough to send Limbaugh a full text of the speech, hoping to tone down his criticism. And there were faint signs that something approaching a real race could yet develop for the GOP nomination. In Iowa, a steady bombardment of ads and organizing has made Forbes a force. In New Hampshire, Sen. John McCain has become the clear alternative to Bush--who has inherited his father's role as the man conservatives, led by the Manchester Union Leader, love to hate. W, wrote publisher Joe McQuaid, is "kicking Republicans in the face." But the Austin Powers remained blase--as only a campaign with millions in the bank, a tepid field and a fat lead in the polls can be. Neither Forbes nor Gary Bauer can win the nomination, they contend, and McCain--who takes center stage in the campaign- finance-reform debate this week--is widely disliked on the right. "Rush Limbaugh doesn't like us this week," said one top Bush adviser, "so what does that really mean?" If Bill Clinton's playbook is right, probably everything.

PRIVATE 70.2% GOV'T 24.3 NONE 16.3 HEALTH EXPENDITURES AS SHARE OF GDP 1968 6.1% 1997 13.5