Gore, in singular moves, shakes up his campaign

Candidate transfers organization to Tenn., seeks Bradley debates

September 30, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Seeking to jump-start his lumbering presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore announced yesterday that he would move its headquarters from Washington to his home state of Tennessee, and he challenged his sole Democratic rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley, to a series of debates.

"It's a brand-new campaign," Gore said, acknowledging that Bradley's "competence and credibility" had pushed him into "a hard-fought competitive race."

"We can work together in these two Democratic campaigns to compete within the framework of what our founders really wanted to see in our representative democracy," Gore said.

The announcements were remarkable, considering that only a few months ago, Gore was widely expected to waltz to the Democratic presidential nomination next year.

Challenging a rival to debate, as Gore did yesterday, is the typical move of an underdog, not a vice president running with the president's enthusiastic backing and the support of the party establishment. Until yesterday, Gore had not mentioned Bradley's name publicly since the campaign began.

Traditionally, presidents and vice presidents have used the trappings of their positions -- and their Washington power base -- to mount their campaigns, stressing the continuity of power and the experience of office.

But in recent weeks, Bradley's poll ratings have risen to the point where he matches Gore in the key states of New Hampshire and New York. He has also garnered glowing media coverage, though he still trails Gore in fund-raising and in national polls.

The vice president has struggled to establish a political identity independent of President Clinton's while still claiming some credit for the economic achievements of the Clinton-Gore administration.

"The trappings of being vice president are hurting us," said Donna Brazile, Gore's national political director.

Bradley reacted to Gore's debate challenge with the air of a front-runner, refusing to say whether he would debate the vice president.

"I haven't made it a habit to respond to every change of tactic by the vice president's campaign," Bradley said in California. "For the last 10 months, the vice president's campaign has been ignoring me, and now they want to debate me. I think we're making progress."

A candidate's frustration

Top Gore advisers conceded that the vice president has been frustrated by his campaign staff's performance.

"He is out there connecting with the people, feeling a sense that he is the candidate that is reaching them," said a close Gore adviser. "He wanted a sense that the campaign was doing the same thing, backing him up wholly."

Roy Neel, a longtime Gore adviser, agreed.

"You don't experience these poll numbers and this kind of brutal press without feeling frustrated," said Neel, who ran Gore's vice presidential campaign from Little Rock, Ark., in 1992. "You've got to shake it up. You've got to do something."

The move to Nashville, Tenn., next week will pare down a 90-person Washington staff that many have considered bloated. Some Gore aides will not be willing to move to Nashville.

Mary Matalin, a Republican consultant, said the move would put some distance between the campaign and a coterie of high-priced Gore consultants who still work as lobbyists and have divided loyalties.

"The problem that Gore has is he's got all these K Street consultants whose loyalties lie elsewhere," said Matalin, who worked on the George Bush presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1992. "They've always got in the back of their minds, `Is this going to hurt my clients?' This is a face-saving device to get rid of the crowd that is not advancing them."

Tony Coelho, Gore's campaign manager, said he will move to Tennessee, as will Carter Eskew, a top adviser.

Robert Squier, a media consultant who has feuded with Eskew over tactics in the Gore campaign, will not make the move, a Squier aide said.

Leaner and tougher

"We anticipate the group in Nashville will be leaner and, hopefully, tougher," Coelho said.

Gore aides hope that by moving the campaign "out of the Beltway and into the heartland," as Gore put it, the vice president will refocus the staff and remove aides from the distractions of Washington and the pundits and reporters who have bedeviled them.

"We can't get our message out," Brazile said. "The Beltway filter is as thick as the Potomac when it's muddy."

The vice president's advisers hope the move will help remove Gore from the shadow of Clinton and help distance him from a White House that, according to recent polls, many Americans say they are weary of.

Gore's riskier move might have been challenging Bradley to debate a range of issues, such as education, health care, the environment, defense and crime.

In national polls, Bradley has crept up from a 45-point deficit among Democratic voters since the spring, but he still trails Gore by more than 20 points, said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster.

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