Gore would benefit from a primary fight, not a coronation

July 19, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Perhaps the most mind-boggling political line of the month is the one taken by Vice President Al Gore in Iowa last week. Democratic activists, he said, should make a decision now on a nominee so he can begin the campaign against Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the richly endowed Republican front-runner.

In a meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. Gore told his listeners they had the power to "determine in short order the Democratic nominee for president and begin the real battle" against the Republicans. He told a second audience: "This group has the ability right now to decide who will be the Democratic nominee for president."

Since the vice president didn't mention the possibility of withdrawal from the contest, the only inference we can draw is that he is saying Democrats should simply hand him the nomination and forget former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, his only challenger.

The statement was either the ultimate arrogance of a vice president who believes he is somehow entitled to the nomination -- or it was a sign of political panic at the impressive strides Mr. Bradley has made in making his challenge one that Democrats take seriously. Either way, it was a symptom of a campaign finding it difficult to handle the pressure of formidable opposition.

Nor was it the first time. The Gore campaign has also sent strong signals of unease by the line it has taken that Mr. Bradley is failing to describe his position on issues adequately. The notion of persuading voters that Mr. Bradley, the quintessential policy nerd, is a lightweight is laughable on its face.

Mr. Gore has valid reasons to be concerned about the huge financial advantage Mr. Bush will enjoy in the general election, assuming he wins the Republican nomination. The Texas governor will be in a position to finance a full-scale campaign against the Democratic nominee while Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley are still spending heavily competing against one another.

But before he starts worrying about Mr. Bush, Mr. Gore should find a way to deal with Mr. Bradley. The former senator has almost as much cash on hand now as the vice president. And Mr. Bradley is clearly picking up support in the opinion polls and among prominent Democrats who see him as a stronger candidate in the general election or, in some cases, one who is closer to them in his views.

As a practical matter, the issue differences between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley are relatively narrow. To the extent there is ferment among Democrats, it is being driven largely by fears that Mr. Gore will be defeated easily by Mr. Bush, as opinion polls show would happen if the general election were held today.

That being the case, the imperative for Mr. Gore is to close the gap by showing the kind of self-confident personal strength that winners always seem to display. And he can't do that by urging other Democrats to simply rally around without going through the primary process that the Democratic Party has been mostly responsible for creating.

Indeed, a valid case can be made that Mr. Gore needs the primary fight. Mr. Bush's position, barring a stumble or some other Republican suddenly catching fire, is so dominant that Mr. Gore needs the momentum of a winner he could gain by defeating Mr. Bradley in those primaries. In the same way, Mr. Bradley could benefit enormously by winning the nomination in primaries and thus becoming the kind of giant-killer Americans admire.

No one can blame the Democrats for being spooked by the report showing Mr. Bush with $30 million on hand and by the prospect he will have another $50 million or $100 million in contributions and "soft money" to spend once the nomination is effectively decided in March.

The Democrats may be able to match the soft money but the de facto nominee, Mr. Gore or Mr. Bradley, is likely to be on short rations for several months between the time the nomination is locked up and the time of the national conventions.

But Mr. Gore doesn't make that prospect any brighter by behaving as if he were entitled to the nomination.

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

Pub Date: 7/19/99

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