Al Gore's 'Men Of Zeal'

Al Gore had the look of a candidate no longer fighting for his political life last week. He took the stage at New York's Avery Fisher Hall to narrate Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," accompanied by the American Symphony Orchestra. In Los Angeles, he kibitzed with Jay Leno, encouraging "The Tonight Show" host to loosen up and poking fun at his own basketball credentials (a year as a scrub on the Harvard freshman team). When Leno asked him which Republican he preferred to run against, he said, "whichever one loses."

Gore still has his hands full with Bill Bradley. The Democratic insurgent continued last week to hammer away at Gore's zigzagging record on abortion and gun control. And late last week basketball icon Michael Jordan kicked in a TV ad endorsing the former Knick. But with polls showing the vice president with commanding leads over Bradley nationally and in battleground states such as California, Gore has begun to hone the message he would take into a fall campaign against either George W. Bush or John McCain. Gore's autumn playbook will look much like the one he employed against Bradley this winter: unceasing and often disputed attacks designed to define his rival as a risky choice for voters.

Aided by opposition research director David Ginsburg (whose Nashville, Tenn., staff is known internally as "the men of zeal"), Gore is already busy sketching Bush's Texas as a bleak and dangerous backwater for women and minorities. Gore told a Los Angeles fund-raiser that Bush governed "the most anti-choice state in the union" where, according to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, more than 90 percent of Texas counties lacked an abortion provider. Speaking to gay activists the next day, Gore said that Texas was one of 39 states where workers could be fired for their sexual preference.

The surging McCain unnerves some in the Gore camp. His straight-shooting aura, compelling personal story and crusade for campaign finance reform make him a potentially formidable opponent. The vice president will try to put the focus on his solidly conservative record (support for Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America," votes against gun control and minimum-wage hikes). "McCain is very vulnerable," said one aide. "He really hasn't been exposed on the issues."

Should Gore clinch the nomination, he can expect constant attacks on his own record--and his probity. Last week, the Republican National Committee circulated parts of his interviews with FBI agents investigating 1996 campaign finance practices. In one, Gore said he may have missed a key White House discussion of fund-raising phone calls--because he had gone to the bathroom. Come fall, he'll need a better explanation.