BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JULY 10, 2000 ISSUE
NEWS: ANALYSIS & COMMENTARY

The Harder Gore Tries, the Lower He Goes
The Veep's numbers slip even as he doles out goodies for all

On June 26, President Clinton cheerfully announced that the projected 10-year budget surplus had grown again, this time to $1.87 trillion. Two days later, the Federal Reserve Board passed up another chance to hike interest rates, acting on evidence that growth was moderating to a more sustainable level. Stocks have rebounded, and core inflation is a benign 2.4%. So how come Vice-President Al Gore's ''prosperity and progress'' campaign isn't prospering or making any progress?

Gore trails Republican George W. Bush by up to 13% in the polls, and Democrats are starting to sweat. Gore is beset by some obvious problems: high gasoline prices; the recommendation by a Justice Dept. official that a special counsel be appointed to look into his role in the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign's 1996 fundraising practices; and the fact that a hyperactive Bill Clinton, who is signing Executive Orders with abandon as the clock runs out on his Presidency, is making it hard for his understudy to step out of his shadow.

Other difficulties, though, seem largely of Gore's own making. Thematically, his campaign seems to constantly change focus from giddy futurism to the demonization of Bush. Backbiting and second-guessing run rampant among Gore's Nashville Cats. Not surprisingly, he's already on his third campaign chief. The latest: Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, who will try to give Gore Inc. a modicum of discipline.

Still, none of this fully explains Gore's summer swoon--and his weakness with core Democratic groups as spotlighted in surveys such as the June 11-13 Voter.com/Battleground Poll. Young or old, male or female, midwestern or coastal, Gore now trails with virtually every demographic group save African Americans and Hispanics. Political pros have a theory, but it offers scant comfort to Gore. After a hotly contested GOP primary battle (vs. Gore's cakewalk), Bush won the respect of the Republican Party and used his stature to build unified support for his cause. In essence, social conservatives gave the Texas Governor a free pass to shift to the center by rolling out a ''compassion offensive'' of small-scale social programs aimed at weakening Gore's grip on women, unionists, seniors, and other Democratic base groups.

Campaign veterans also fault Gore's approach to connecting with voters. He's blitzing them with a raft of complex legislative proposals, many based on bogus trust funds and small-bore tax credits. By thinking like a Washington legislator, the Vice-President runs the risk of becoming a latter-day Bob Dole--the hapless '96 GOP nominee famous for mystifying voters with references to obscure bill numbers.

OUT OF TOUCH? Moreover, the nine-year stretch of prosperity has Americans shopping for pragmatic problem-solvers, not techno-visionaries. ''The economic environment has people looking for a [down-to-earth] approach to issues such as education and the family budget,'' says Illinois Democratic pollster Mike Mc-Keon. ''As a governor, Bush is used to this. Clinton understood it. Gore has been in Washington so long, he has lost touch.''

Gore's hole is deep, and time for recovery grows short. But campaign vets who take the long view say there's no cause for panic--yet. Gore needs to turn the boom times into a clear and coherent message. He has to get a second look from Americans by delivering a stellar speech at the August Democratic National Convention. Then he must close the deal by outsmarting--but not out-smirking--Bush in the campaign debates that kick off Oct. 3. ''Al has to be within the [polling] margin of error by late September or we've got trouble,'' says one top Democratic strategist.

In the meantime, The Veep must concentrate much of his energy on binding up the Democratic base. According to the Battleground Poll, 93% of Republicans have consolidated around Bush. Only 79% of Democrats back the Vice-President, and Green Party nominee Ralph Nader is siphoning votes from the left. Worse, Bush leads, 47%-35%, on the key issue of which man would do a better job of keeping the country prosperous.

GOODIES GALORE. These gains were made despite a policy blitz by Gore that rolled out new government goodies for virtually every group in American society. Among them: a $200 billion ''Retirement Security Plus'' plan that provides new 401(k)-type savings accounts for middle-income workers, a $38 billion day-care initiative, and new tax credits that would stave off future shocks at the gasoline pump by promoting clean cars and mass transit.

The only consolation Gore can take from his predicament is that if history is any guide, it may prove ephemeral. In three of the past five Presidential races, the leader in June polls was defeated. ''Gore is in a fairly normal state for an incumbent Vice-President,'' insists Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. ''I remember doing focus group for Michael Dukakis in '88, and when we mentioned Bush senior, all we got was: 'weak,' 'wimp,' and 'doesn't have what it takes.' Next thing we knew,'' Greenberg muses, ''He closed a 17-point gap and creamed us.''

Gore has to hope history repeats itself this fall. If it doesn't, a boom-time election that prognosticators once viewed as a huge opportunity for Democrats to consolidate power will turn to ashes--with the hapless Man from Carthage blamed for it all.

By Lee Walczak and Richard S. Dunham in Washington

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