Gore, Gephardt give tepid preview of 2000 primary Democratic front-runners avoid divisive rhetoric

September 28, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, the two principal prospective rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, displayed their wares yesterday before influential party leaders.

While both were warmly received, it was Gore -- despite his fund-raising-related woes -- who seemed to come out ahead, if only because that's where he started.

In speeches before the fall meeting of the Democratic National Committee, the two men differed mostly in tone and emphasis, with Gephardt being more impassioned and evoking a more enthusiastic response.

On the single substantive difference between the two -- President Clinton's request for a free hand in negotiating trade pacts -- Gephardt made his opposition clear without directly confronting the White House.

The absence of a dramatic and compelling contrast worked to the advantage of Gore, far and away the early front-runner in the race, party leaders agreed. Most of them would like to avoid a divisive Democratic contest that could weaken the party's chances.

Explaining Gephardt's reluctance to take the offensive against the White House, Steven Elmendorf, the Missouri lawmaker's chief of staff, said, "We have to get along with these guys on the Hill." But, he added, "if there is a campaign, it would be different."

Presumably as a declared candidate, Gephardt would offer himself as a populist alternative to the centrist "New Democrat" course Clinton and Gore have charted for their party.

But for now, Gephardt seems restrained in his rhetoric, although yesterday he dramatized his objections to the president's request for "fast-track" trade authority, which would require Congress to take a straight up-or-down vote on agreements negotiated by Clinton.

In Gore's only reference to the controversial trade issue, he strove to reassure party leaders. "This president, unlike his Republican predecessors, knows how to protect labor rights and the environment," he said.

Even Gore's involvement in the Democrats' fund-raising controversy, which most independent analysts view as his greatest political vulnerability, seemed transformed into something of an asset before the party faithful. They see Gore's legal difficulties as the consequence not of wrongdoing but of GOP efforts to make him a scapegoat in a vendetta against the Clinton administration.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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