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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The empire strikes back

Reeling in Big Labor and improvising well, Gore has a big week. Finally. But can it last?

By Eric Pooley

TIME magazine

October 18, 1999
Web posted at: 12:29 p.m. EDT (1629 GMT)

It was about time Al Gore caught a break. For months his presidential campaign has seen nothing but bad luck and trouble, much of it brought on by the Vice President himself. He ignored his only Democratic rival until Bill Bradley's minivan pulled up right alongside Air Force Two. He turned his campaign into a jobs program for consultants and seemed congenitally unable to connect with voters. Things were so dismal for so long, in fact, that after Gore fired his pollster, slashed his staff, declared himself the underdog and moved his headquarters to Nashville, Tenn., it was probably inevitable that his luck would change, at least for a little while.

But let's not get carried away with comeback talk. Let's just say Gore finally had a good week.

If a high point came in Los Angeles on Wednesday, when Gore landed the endorsement of the 13 million-member AF-CIO--a labor machine that can give his campaign soft money, vote-pulling muscle and 200 organizers in Iowa alone--it wasn't the only one. That night in Seattle, after the Senate shot down the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Gore tried to build momentum by staying up late to write, edit and star in a TV spot in which he pledged that his first act as President would be to send the treaty back to the Senate. That may not get voters dancing in the streets of Nashua, N.H., but at least it proved he was capable of making a spontaneous move. "It was probably the least calculated moment of the campaign," says an adviser. Gore didn't even have time to poll, though he knew in his bones that the no-nukes message would play well among liberals leaning toward Bradley. Flying from Seattle to Washington on Thursday, Gore told reporters how he had written the spot on hotel stationery; he even handed out copies of a penciled-up draft. He was pleased to have done something brave and impulsive. On Friday he was still being that way. He told the Washington Post he was thinking about flying solo--asking Bill Clinton to stand aside and let him win or lose by himself.

Gore, who can seem phony even when he's totally sincere, has always tried to make up with hard work what he lacks in instinct and inspiration. Right now he's working so feverishly to connect that he makes you want to give him a hug. "I don't want to tell you what's on my mind," he says constantly. "I want to show you what's in my heart"--and you get the idea he'd like to rip the thing clean out of his breast, just to prove he has one. What's fascinating is that this all shows signs of working. He sometimes manages to find what performers call the Zone--the elusive place where everything they try works. In Seattle an audience of Boeing aerospace machinists went wild for Gore--repeat, went wild for Gore. People laughed at his jokes. They nodded at his confession that after Vietnam and Watergate, "I was as disillusioned as anyone you've ever met." They cheered when he promised he would "stay and fight" for them. And they were mindful that unlike Bradley, he supports building the F-22 Raptor jet fighter, a program that helps keep Boeing humming.

Though two of the AF-CIO's biggest unions, the Teamsters and United Auto Workers, withheld their endorsements last week in hopes of extracting trade protections from the Clinton Administration, the good news for Gore is that he managed to reel in the AF without making those kinds of concessions. In effect he pulled a Bradley, telling unions they should trust him because of what he is, not what he will do. He glossed over the knottiest issue facing labor: the way free trade exports American jobs and suppresses American wages. And though free traders have proposals for dealing with the problem, Gore didn't mention them. Apart from a promise to negotiate labor and environmental agreements as part of future trade pacts, not as side deals, he offered platitudes about protecting the right to organize and boosting the minimum wage--no-brainers for any Democrat. In fact, nothing Gore said in L.A. about how he'd "stay and fight for working people" would have raised an eyebrow the next day in Washington, when he told the free-trade-loving members of the Democratic Leadership Council that he would stay and fight for centrism. Gore has been doing plenty of staying and fighting this month. His new slogan, of course, is designed to contrast him with Bradley, who left the Senate during the Gingrich revolution. Gore's attacks on Bradley represent something he's long been missing: a coherent strategy, a chance to pull himself off the mat.

Gore first drew blood with "stay and fight" two weeks ago, when he and Bradley made a joint appearance in Iowa. Bradley spoke first, bemoaning the state of politics and wondering why he and Gore couldn't be more like home-run rivals Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, "pushing [each other] to be the best we could be." When it was Gore's turn he said, "I listened carefully to what you had to say about making this campaign a different kind of experience. I really agree." He proposed a debate a week, each devoted to a different issue. "What about it, Bill? If the answer is yes, stand up."

Bradley didn't and hasn't. Ever since, Gore has been filching Bradley rhetoric, talking about "having a different kind of campaign," styling himself the high-minded statesman and Bradley the conventional pol. To anyone paying attention, it's pretty transparent. For 10 months Gore wouldn't come within 100 miles of Bradley; now that Bradley leads in New Hampshire and has more money in the bank than Gore, the Vice President wants weekly debates to "elevate our democracy." Even Gore's advisers admit the ploy. "Sure it's tactical," says one, "but it's also good for the country." The danger for Bradley is that his countertactics look no nobler than Gore's tactics. If Bradley really wants to improve the process, why not just say yes to Gore? Certainly Gore watchers would enjoy seeing a less rehearsed Vice President; in 1996 he was so obsessed with debate prep that he made sure the temperature in his practice room matched the temperature in the debate hall. So far, Bradley has agreed to one debate this year, a televised town-hall forum to take place Oct. 27 in New Hampshire. But the pressure is on, and he'll soon agree to more.

Which leaves Gore supporters wondering if their man can build on his week. Those who doubt his fortitude should hear Seattle mountaineer Jim Frush tell how Gore and his son Albert III, 16. climbed Mount Rainier last August. With ice picks and crampons, ropes and harnesses, they began the final grueling ascent at 2 a.m., in white-out conditions, hail and high winds. They summited six hours later. Gore, who hasn't told that story publicly, has been closing his speeches with a generic bit about standing on the summit--"You can see a long way, but you can't see every day that will dawn." But he chose the wrong metaphor. He'd better hope the symbol of his campaign turns out to be that death-defying climb.


Cover Date: October 25, 1999

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