Gore's Iowa challenge and chance

April 12, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

COLO, Iowa -- It's early morning and Vice President Al Gore, fresh from an overnight stay at the farm of Keith and Susan McKinney, is busily working the breakfast crowd at a nearby coffee shop.

Dressed in blue work shirt and jeans, he moves unhurriedly from table to table, shaking hands and enthusing about the buttermilk pancakes and sausages his hostess had served him earlier.

The talk between the vice president and the breakfasting Iowans is mostly about family, his and theirs. He makes no effort to rush as he moves through the room to press for their votes in the Iowa presidential caucuses still 10 months off.

As Mr. Gore makes his rounds, a bevy of television cameramen hovers over the scene, and a boom mike is held high over his head to pick up the chit-chat.

After working the whole room and one in the shop's basement, he comes back up and sits at a table of 10 for more small talk. Much is made of the fact, by him and them, that he will become a grandfather for the first time in June.

Only after perhaps 45 minutes of this leisurely interplay does the local mayor get up, introduce Mr. Gore and give him an opportunity to make a political pitch.

The vice president starts by thanking the McKinneys, and several other family members by their first names, for their overnight hospitality.

Then he makes a few general remarks in support of the American presence in Kosovo and the need for a more aggressive defense of the family farm at home.

He takes a question about campaign finance reform, which he says is a high priority with him, and then segues into his experience as a farmer, recently a subject of some ridicule -- but not here among these farmers who seem to take him as one of their own.

Only at the end does the vice president make a direct pitch for votes. "I want to pledge to you that if I'm elected to be your president," he concludes, "I will fight for the family farmers, and I will fight for the way of life you have here in Colo. That's what it's all about."

That, indeed, is what it's all about as Mr. Gore early and often is working Iowa, with its tradition as the first state every four years to make a significant appraisal of the presidential candidates in its February precinct caucuses.

The morning at the Colo coffee shop, and an afternoon house party in nearby Ames, demonstrate that the Democrat, at this point at least, is listening to the advice he is getting from all sides here about what it takes to win the Iowa caucuses.

He is being told what he already knows, that the name of successful politics here is retail -- one-on-one flesh-pressing among voters who are accustomed to seeing candidates up close and often.

With a large entourage of Secret Service agents as well as television technicians accompanying him -- his motorcade on this day numbered more than a dozen vehicles led by police cars with flashing lights -- it's not easy for the vice president to maintain an atmosphere of intimacy with the often wide-eyed Iowans he meets.

But Mr. Gore is trying, by plunging into crowds whenever possible and lingering for small talk along rope lines he walks to shake hands.

Gov. Tom Vilsack, newly elected as the first Democrat to lead the state in 30 years, is remaining neutral between Mr. Gore and his only declared opponent, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

"My advice to the vice president," he says, "is you've got this entourage with you, you've got to learn how to personalize your campaign." State Attorney General Tom Miller, an open Gore backer, says "the decision is already taken to take Iowa seriously. Those who don't, don't do well."

He cites Ronald Reagan's loss to George Bush here in 1980 after Mr. Reagan tried to kiss the Iowa Republican caucuses off with a last weekend rally.

Al Gore is far ahead of Bill Bradley in all the national polls, but Mr. Bradley has already demonstrated his own commitment to intense retail campaigning in Iowa, knowing that a strong showing by him here, even short of victory, could change the dynamics of the Democratic nomination contest next February.

Even with Mr. Vilsack staying neutral, Mr. Gore will have most of the state Democratic leaders in his corner. But if he were to stumble here, Mr. Bradley would be very acceptable as an alternative.

So, in a sense, Iowa is both an opportunity and a potential pitfall for the vice president that demands special attention all this year.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 4/12/99

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