No move will break Gore's link to tainted presidency

October 01, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore explains his decision to move his presidential campaign headquarters to Nashville, Tenn., by saying he wants to take it "directly to the grass roots and directly to the American people."

Translation: I've got to do something to take the focus off me as a Washington political animal tethered to Monica Lewinsky's old boyfriend.

The idea that moving a presidential campaign out of Washington will bring a candidate closer to the American people is laughable, considering how presidential campaigns are conducted these days. A campaign headquarters' location is irrelevant to a candidate's quest to meet voters.

Whether from Washington or Nashville, candidates will go to states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, which are small enough for real retail campaigning, and California and New York, where they can meet only a tiny portion of the electorate.

In any event, physical proximity to President Clinton is not Mr. Gore's problem. Rather, it's that his total embrace of the president makes it virtually impossible at this late stage to put any distance between himself and Mr. Clinton in voters' minds. Besides, Mr. Gore is still vice president, and if he hopes to accrue any political benefit from that role, he cannot absent himself from Washington all of the time.

Outside the beltway

If there is any advantage to having a campaign headquarters outside of Washington, it is a psychological one, freeing the campaign from Washington's constant whirl of political intrigue. It worked for Jimmy Carter, one of the first presidential candidates to try it, in 1976, for Michael Dukakis in 1988 and for Mr. Clinton in 1992. But each of those campaigns originated in the candidate's home state. Mr. Gore's decision to switch to Tennessee has an air of desperation to it, coming four months before the Iowa caucuses.

The move comes after a series of events that suggests disarray in the Gore campaign. First, old pol Tony Coehlo was brought in to shape up -- or shake up -- the campaign organization. Then a number of high-priced political consultants were hired to provide layer upon layer of advice, particularly as Mr. Gore remained mired far behind his potential general election opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, in poll after poll.

Meanwhile, in a scenario right out of the tortoise and the hare, his lone foe for the Democratic nomination, former Sen. Bill Bradley, has been slowly and quietly working the boondocks, creeping up on Mr. Gore with an effective grass-roots campaign (based, incidentally, in West Orange, N.J., near his home).

The latest chill in the Gore campaign comes from polls showing Mr. Bradley running even or ahead of the vice president in key primary states, including New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey.

Not surprisingly under the circumstances, Mr. Gore now says he wants Mr. Bradley to debate him "a lot" on a range of issues. Usually, the front-runner wouldn't want to give his opponent such exposure.

Translation: I can read the polls, and they're telling me this guy is for real and I can't go on acting as if I am assured of the nomination.

Not jumping to debate

Mr. Bradley, playing it cool, is not biting: "I haven't made it a habit to respond to every change of tactic by the vice president's campaign," he said upon hearing of Mr. Gore's debate challenge.

"I have consistently said this should be a contest of ideas and vision for the future, not of negative attacks and poll-tested sound bites . . . I have accepted a number of joint appearance invitations already, beginning next month in New Hampshire, and look forward to more." Translation: I'm doing fine just doing it my way, thank you.

So the prospect is that the tortoise will continue to move at his own pace, while the hare nervously looks over his shoulder.

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

Pub Date: 10/01/99

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