With nomination no certainty, Gore wrong to ignore Bradley

July 28, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The latest strategy Vice President Al Gore is pursuing in his quest for the presidency, according to the Washington Post, is to focus his fire on Texas Gov. George W. Bush, not former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

The only inference one can draw from that bit of intelligence is that the Gore campaign has decided everything has been settled for the general election campaign -- it's Mr. Gore vs. Mr. Bush -- six months before the first primaries and caucuses are held to choose convention delegates.

This may be just wishful thinking by the Gore camp. Or it may be some clumsy attempt to make it appear the vice president's nomination is inevitable. But anyone who supports Mr. Gore should hope his strategists don't really believe their own spin.

It may appear reasonable to assume that Mr. Bush will be the GOP nominee. He holds a staggering lead in the opinion polls and money. And the political community in general seems to have made that assumption.

The same seems to be true of some of the press. The Washington Post, for example, is running a seven-part series about Mr. Bush's personal history. It's the kind of attention not normally lavished on a candidate at this stage of the process.

But Mr. Bush doesn't have the party's nomination locked up yet. No candidate is immune to the fickleness of the voters, if the candidate makes a serious mistake or if some rival suddenly catches their fancy.

Although poll numbers favoring Mr. Bush are most impressive, it should not be overlooked that these surveys are being made when most people are paying little or no attention to a presidential election they see, correctly, as distant. Whatever Mr. Bush's hold on Republicans, Mr. Gore is hardly in a position to behave as if his nomination by the Democrats is a sure thing. Although he has comfortable leads over Mr. Bradley in opinion surveys and less comfortable margins in money, Mr. Bradley is clearly competitive in the critical New Hampshire primary and in such major states as California and New York.

Scandal fatigue

Mr. Bradley's show of muscle is partly a reflection of his appeal to the party's most devout liberals and partly a product of the special celebrity he enjoys as a former basketball star. But it also shows that many Americans are suffering from "Clinton fatigue" and want a new administration in the White House.

It is also clear, however, that the vice president is paying a price for those match-up polls that show Mr. Bush defeating him by 15 or 20 percentage points in the general election. Choosing someone who can win is always at least part of the equation in any primary contest.

So, at one level, it makes sense for Mr. Gore to want to bring Mr. Bush down to size. But it is far more important for the vice president to make his own candidacy more credible. And that goal cannot be achieved with such spin as his message in Iowa recently that Democratic activists should settle on him now so he can devote his time and money to the general election campaign.

Front-loaded schedule

All of these machinations are, of course, a result of the bizarre rush to judgment under way in both parties. With so many primaries moved up to such early dates in the schedule, it now seems likely that the contests for the nominations will be settled no later than late March and probably even sooner.

Those nominations have not been settled yet, however. Mr. Bush holds what appears to be an insurmountable lead, and so far he has been an effective personal campaigner. But he has miles to go.

Mr. Gore, too, has formidable political assets in terms of the declared support of Democratic officeholders and party leaders and in terms of money. But he is in no position to imagine that Mr. Bradley has been vanquished and can be ignored over the next six months while Mr. Gore engages Mr. Bush.

Happily for the vice president, most Americans are paying little or no attention to all the signs of stumbling disarray in a campaign with a different message every week.

The activists are following the campaign closely, but Mr. Gore has ample time to make a positive impression on most of those who will vote in the primaries.

However, he won't be able to do it by acting as if Mr. Bradley were not there.

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

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