Reinventing Gore

It may have been a bit more than some of the 1,200 Democratic women at last week's Washington fund-raiser wanted to know about the real Al Gore. The Gores have decided that marital bliss sells in the post-Monica era, so when Tipper called her reserved husband to the stage, he made sure everyone knew he was actually a tiger after hours. "I love it when she beckons me with her finger like that," Gore said. "I always respond."

Election time is approaching, and once again Gore is trying to colorize his beige public image. This year, as in every national campaign since 1988, aides speak hopefully of a reinvented Gore. With warmer, earth-tone suits, a buffer build and a trimmed-down message, he is poised, they say, to reveal some of what family, friends and reporters working off the record often see: a spontaneous, engaging and even subversively funny man. "He's on fire now," bubbled one senior adviser last week. "He feels very passionate now."

He had better, at a time when friends and supporters worry that his campaign is starting to slip away. Last week brought another batch of bad news for an organization already rattled by scary poll numbers and staff bickering. In New York, once seen as a cakewalk and now a battleground for Gore, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan delivered his long-expected endorsement of the surging Bill Bradley, kissing off the vice president with a bluntness that surprised even some of the old Knick's supporters. "Nothing is the matter with Mr. Gore, except that he can't be elected president," said Moynihan, who loathed the Republican welfare-reform bill that Gore urged President Clinton to sign in 1996. The vice president's campaign tried to take the edge off Bradley's coup with a conga line of endorsements from other prominent New York pols, including State Comptroller Carl McCall. But Moynihan's shot sent another tremor of concern through Gore's already skittish supporters in the party.

Gore may never wipe out his charisma deficit, but he keeps working at it. He took his retooled show head to head with Bradley on Saturday at the fall session of the Democratic National Committee, and got points for energy, if not necessarily style. Following the professorial Bradley, who donned glasses to read a quietly eloquent speech from notes, Gore borrowed from the Elizabeth Dole playbook. He moved from the podium to center stage, speaking about his Tennessee childhood and rallying the party base by affirming his support for women, unions and racial diversity. "I feel passionately about these issues!" he said.

One thing Gore has always done well is snipe at opponents. He helped drive Dick Gephardt from the 1988 primaries with relentless attacks on issue flip-flops and ads branding him "a populist hypocrite." He test-marketed a possible line of attack against his opponent on Saturday with a veiled shot at Bradley's 1995 Senate retirement speech, in which he said politics was "broken." Gore urged the crowd "to fight for the right outcome, and not walk away from change, but stay there digging and fighting."

As Gore tries to sharpen up his act, his backstage problems continue to grow. While he loves to keep up with the latest in management techniques, his campaign is bloated with costly consultants and is "hemorrhaging" cash, as one nervous Gore adviser told The New York Times last week. Campaign czar Tony Coelho, whom Gore hired last spring to give the drifting organization focus, gets high marks from senior advisers for expediting decisions and controlling at least some of the candidate's notorious micromanagement (fussing over guest lists for events, parsing the details of schedules). But lower-level operatives say the rest of the organization has been demoralized by Coelho's autocratic style. "Brutal," one longtime operative told NEWSWEEK.

There is also grumbling at the grass roots. In New Hampshire, where the race is now a statistical dead heat, activists say Gore has yet to connect with voters. Supporters are warning Gore brass in Washington that the candidate has spent far too much time schmoozing state party officials and not enough cultivating the broader support essential to victory. "It's now imperative that the vice president engage Bill Bradley on the ground," his New Hampshire adviser Joe Keefe told Manchester's Union Leader late last week. "They're panicked," said Arnie Arnesen, a former gubernatorial candidate. She is sympathetic to Gore, she says, but she is being "pushed into Bradley's arms" by a remote and unresponsive Gore campaign.

The latest "new" Gore has invested much of his hope for a turnaround in a cadre of old established Democratic consultants imported by Coelho. They are led by Gore's onetime media adviser Carter Eskew, who is serving as uber-strategist in the James Carville-Dick Morris mold, and speechwriter Bob Shrum. Eskew, whose past clients include Gore's enemies in the tobacco industry, is helping the vice president to talk in more personal terms about policy, and stripping away some of his ponderous rhetoric (remember "practical idealism"?) to focus on proposals for "working families"; the phrase appeared eight times in a recent health-care speech.

After a difficult spring and summer, Gore is said to be upbeat. "I'm feeling a better connection" to audiences, he told one top aide recently. But Bradley has ended any hopes the vice president had of establishing himself in 1999 as the inevitable nominee. "We're going to hear from two outstanding candidates," New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (whose husband heads the vice president's campaign there) told the DNC as she introduced Gore and Bradley. "One of them will be president." Just a few short months ago, Gore could scarcely imagine sharing a Democratic stage and hearing those words. Now he knows that he will have to fight for a prize he once thought was his.