Why Al's Going South

The coronation strategy was not working, and Al Gore knew it. For months his advisers and pollsters had mistakenly told him that he could ignore Bill Bradley's challenge and inherit the Democratic nomination by playing it safe. But polls showed Bradley pulling even with Gore in key primary states like New Hampshire and New York, and matching up better against GOP front runner George W. Bush in November. Gore's money-raising machine was slowing down, while Bradley's was picking up. Both campaigns had about the same amount of cash, but Gore was spending more lavishly on high-priced consultants and fancy office space on K Street, the lawyer-lobbyist corridor in Washington. All Gore was buying was the image of a boring Washington insider.

Last Monday night Gore summoned his media adviser, Carter Eskew, and his campaign manager, Tony Coelho, to his Washington home. With Tipper by his side, the vice president told his aides that he was moving the campaign headquarters to Nashville. The move would save some money--rents are cheaper in Tennessee, and the campaign could shed some of its bloated staff. And leaving Washington would be symbolic. Gore would be moving beyond the capital hothouse and the shadow of the Clinton presidency to rejoin the grass roots.

But changing addresses raised a larger question: could Gore himself change? Could he shed the stiffness that often makes him sound like a senator's son delivering a commencement address? In the past, Gore has been most effective as an aggressor in debates. Last week he challenged Bradley to debate him and went on the attack, accusing his challenger of "disloyalty" to the party because in 1996 the then senator from New Jersey had briefly contemplated running for president as an independent. Bradley lashed back at Gore as a creature of Washington who can't win next November. The coming mudfest will entertain and possibly educate bored voters, but it may not help the Democrats. In most polls Bush defeats both Gore and Bradley, though Bradley does marginally better. Gore's greatest fear is that the voters have already made up their minds about him--as the tired relic of the old order.

Washington may be hard for Gore to escape: last weekend AP reported that Coelho is under investigation for abusing his expense account, giving his niece a federal job and accepting a $300,000 personal loan from a Portuguese bank while he was on a government assignment in 1998. Gore, who depends heavily on Coelho, is likely to be drawn into another Beltway mess.

Though the vice president would like to distance himself from the Clinton administration and its taint of scandal, his real goal is in many ways to be more like Bill Clinton. It is an article of faith among the president's longtime followers that Clinton never would have made it to the White House in 1992 if his campaign had been headquartered in Washington instead of hometown Little Rock. Gore is trying to connect with voters in the same heartfelt, personal way as Clinton. Significantly, Gore last week dumped his pollster, Mark Penn, and replaced him with an old friend, Harrison Hickman. Though he did a masterful job of helping get Clinton re-elected in '96, Penn had become a Beltway insider, spreading his talents around the corporate world with clients like Microsoft. Hickman, by contrast, is more of a border-state populist, with a good feel for angry blue-collar voters. His job will be to build a firewall in the South for Gore in the Super Tuesday primaries, just in case Bradley upsets Gore in the Northeast.

So the vice president has little choice but to try to shift attention to his own personal story. To appear more down home, Gore has added another piece of personal narrative to his stump speech. He describes coming home from Vietnam in the early '70s, still with his GI's buzz cut, and feeling hostile stares as he walked down the street. For a time, Gore says, he became "disillusioned with America." Gore is hoping that voters disenchanted with Washington and their economic prospects will identify with this more humble Gore and not just see a politician in a blue suit (hence Gore's new earth-tone duds).

In politics, when a front runner agrees to debate, the pundits automatically smell panic. On the trail, the surging Bradley could barely conceal his satisfaction, amiably joking by name with reporters he used to avoid. Bradley was coy about accepting Gore's debate challenge, but it appears likely that the two contestants will be facing off in New Hampshire by the end of the month. The dirt-dishing has already begun: last week Gore supporters were showing up at Bradley rallies, handing out leaflets attacking the former New Jersey senator's voting record.

In private conversation last week, Gore seemed bursting to take on Bradley and break out of his old, cautious mode. But out in public, talking up his plan to improve health care, he regressed. In an unfortunate bit of scheduling, he was sent on a photo op to an emergency room. A press aide had pushed reporters to ask Gore about George W. Bush's attempt to distance himself from congressional Republicans on the budget. Here was a chance to bash Bush and the GOP with something pithy or clever. An accommodating TV producer popped the question--and Gore muffed it. Stiff as ever in his suit, he rambled on like a lawmaker in the well of the Senate, talking about the "earned- income tax credit" instead of helping the working poor. It may take more than new clothes, a new address and even a new attitude to create a new Gore.