N.H. Democrats wonder if Gore can go the distance

September 29, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

SWANZEY, N.H. -- Vice President Al Gore enjoyed what political managers call "a good hit" here the other day. Standing before Wilson Pond on a sparkling autumn day, he won a warm reception from some 300 people who turned out to see him.

Perhaps more to the point, the event provided the kind of pictures that are catnip to television news, the candidate holding forth confidently with the perfect backdrop. Shades of Ronald Reagan.

But the vice president's position here is far less secure than those images might suggest. The day that Mr. Gore arrived, the front page of the Keene Sentinel carried a story about the new CNN-Time poll showing Bill Bradley leading Mr. Gore, 44 percent to 41 percent, among likely voters in the New Hampshire primary.

That margin is statistically insignificant, but the survey is still the first to show the former senator from New Jersey actually leading in this critical primary state.

The survey result was not really a surprise, however. Although still far behind nationally, Mr. Bradley has been gaining steadily on Mr. Gore in the states in which he has concentrated his campaigning: California, New York and New Hampshire.

Bradley's rise

Even without the new poll, there is abundant evidence that Mr. Gore is facing a far more serious challenge from Mr. Bradley than the vice president and his advisers expected a few months ago.

Many of the Democrats who showed up at Wilson Pond were quick to tell visiting reporters that they were concerned about Mr. Gore's electability in the light of surveys showing him running so far behind the likely Republican nominee, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

"I'm about fifty-fifty," said one longtime Democratic activist wearing a Gore sticker on his shirt. "I'm for Gore, but I'm for Bradley, too. I want somebody who can win."

Although he served three terms in the Senate, Mr. Bradley is seen first as an outsider and a celebrity rather than as part of the system.

As the son of a senator and a veteran of 16 years in Congress and seven as vice president, Mr. Gore cannot hope to divorce himself from the sins of Washington. But he does make a point of explaining how alienated he felt from politics after his father's defeat in 1970 and gradually came around to an appreciation of the things that could be accomplished through public service.

Whether anyone in his audience draws the proper inference is questionable. But it clearly will take more than speeches heavy with nuance for Mr. Gore to hold off Mr. Bradley.

One obvious answer, his advisers say, is for the vice president to spend more time in the state that has received so much attention from Mr. Bradley.

Another is to step up the campaign tempo. Last weekend, for example, some 200 Gore volunteers began handing out literature in a door-to-door canvass much like one undertaken by Bradley volunteers a few weeks ago.

Faster pace campaign

In previous primary campaigns, that kind of effort would not have been made before November, but this time around everything is moving at a faster pace.

Mr. Bradley, for example, ran half-page ads in New Hampshire newspapers over the weekend promising an advertising series outlining his views on specific issues.

"Wouldn't it be refreshing to have more than sound bites and photo ops when you're choosing a candidate for president?" asks the headline on the first ad.

So far, Mr. Gore has resisted the temptation to snipe at Mr. Bradley except in the most oblique way.

His campaign is passing out buttons that read "Always a Democrat" -- an apparent reminder to voters that Mr. Bradley abandoned his Senate seat three years ago. Mr. Gore makes a point of his military service in the Vietnam War, again implying a contrast with Mr. Bradley.

But the first concern for Mr. Gore should be those opinion polls showing him so far behind Mr. Bush. In this critical state, a lot of Democrats are beginning to wonder if Bill Bradley might be the answer.

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

Pub Date: 9/29/99

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