Retooling Al Gore's campaign

October 13, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

FORT DODGE, Iowa -- The "new" Al Gore, wearing an olive-green sports shirt open at the neck, matching sweater and khaki pants instead of his old trademark dark blue suit, white shirt and red tie, strolls into the Iowa Central Community College gymnasium.

He grins and waves to the invitation-only crowd that has just finished a free pancake breakfast. Unhurriedly, he goes from table to table shaking hands and chatting with the local Democrats, as Secret Service agents observe from an unobtrusive distance.

One of the raps against the "old" Al Gore's campaign was that voters were kept behind ropelines by the protecting agents and he couldn't really get to them.

Now the Gore campaign holds invitation-only events like this one and gives the Secret Service the list of attendees, so the agents don't feel they have to hover over him quite so closely.

The vice president spends about half an hour leisurely working the room. When he finally gets around to addressing the crowd, he makes it short and sweet, stepping down from the speaking platform in the intimate style used by his mentor, President Clinton.

He starts by asking two elderly ladies to stand so the crowd can see their T-shirts proclaiming "Grandmas for Gore." He talks about having just become a grandfather himself -- with a grandson, "a Democrat," born on the Fourth of July.

His advice to other grandparents, he says with the dead pan of the "old" Al Gore, is: "Give that grandchild everything he wants -- and then give him back to his parents." He breaks into a broad grin as the crowd laughs with him.

Then he talks politics, keeping it light at first.

Commenting on passage in the House of Democratic-backed legislation enabling patients to take HMOs to court if they fail to provide required treatment, he tells of a man who died of a heart attack because his HMO would not pay for use of a fibrillater, on grounds it was not an emergency.

"To Republicans," he says with another dead pan, "the absence of a heart may not seem an emergency." More guffaws from the crowd, and another grin from Al.

Then it is time to be more serious, to deal with the immediate problem at hand, which is a fellow named Bill Bradley.

After nearly a year in relative obscurity, ex-Senator Bradley has begun to come on so fast that he is running even or ahead of Mr. Gore in polls in New Hampshire and New York.

The vice president, with strong party and union support behind him in Iowa, remains ahead here but the new Al Gore is not taking anything for granted anymore.

In a clear reference to Mr. Bradley's decision to retire from the Senate in 1996 and his brief musing about possibly running against Bill Clinton as an independent, Mr. Gore loudly declares:

"I am a Democrat through and through and always have been. I've never been tempted to leave the Democratic Party."

And with a Bradley vote for Reagan budget cuts in 1981 in mind, he adds: "I'm proud I voted against that Reaganomics budget."

He concludes with a straightforward pitch for support at Iowa's precinct caucuses in January, the first major step in the process of selecting delegates to the next Democratic national convention.

He puts all the urgency he can into the appeal, promising that "I will fight with my heart and soul for every single vote."

Later in the day, at the state party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, Mr. Gore spiritedly tells 3,000 Democrats in a tough attack on Mr. Bradley that he never "walked away" from a fight with the Republicans, but "stayed to fight." He directly reiterates his challenge to Mr. Bradley to debate him weekly.

But Mr. Bradley, preaching against the politics of negative tactics, isn't biting.

Still, the new Al Gore is determined to keep up the pressure, hoping his aggressiveness will put his foe on the defensive -- and invigorate his own recently unsettled campaign.

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

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