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Jewish World Review August 1, 2002 / 24 Menachem-Av, 5762

Seth Gitell

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Gore's low profile is no accident | MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE Senator John Edwards of North Carolina has already wooed Democratic activists at a pig roast in Bow. Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut has glad-handed the firefighters in Nashua. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts has gone to the Nashua Senior Center to hammer the Republicans for playing "bingo" with prescription-drug benefits. House minority leader Richard Gephardt has pounded the pavement for congressional hopefuls Katrina Swett and Martha Fuller Clark. Vermont governor Howard Dean is in New Hampshire so much he's drawing fire from his hometown press. Even the Reverend Al Sharpton has stopped by the Granite State - just before, it should be noted, HBO's broadcast of a 1983 FBI surveillance video of a cowboy-hat-wearing Sharpton discussing a purported drug deal.

All the potential 2004 presidential aspirants have been devoting considerable energy to New Hampshire, except for one - former vice-president Al Gore. With the exception of a hastily organized two-day visit last October, which some Democrats privately describe as "bizarre," Gore's presence is more or less negligible in New Hampshire some 19 months before the state's next presidential primary. To the uninitiated, it may seem too early to be campaigning for the presidency. After all, Gore's vanishing act pales in comparison with the array of important state and congressional races currently riveting the nation's political attention, such as the critical governors' battles in Massachusetts, New York, California, and Florida. Besides, isn't it too early to be worrying about the presidential race?

Well, no. On Monday and Tuesday, Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, and Gephardt all addressed the influential, centrist-leaning Democratic Leadership Council's "National Conversation" conference, and even Lieberman is now publicly re-examining his promise to refrain from running if Gore runs. The New York event drew the undivided attention of political junkies, who are currently in the process of deciding which 2004 candidates to support. Right now, potential presidential candidates should be doing three things: 1) letting the world know they're running by appearing on news programs, such as NBC's Meet the Press with Tim Russert; 2) competing in the fundraising "money primary"; and 3) building the foundations of a nationwide political organization. So far, Gore is pursuing none of these objectives. He's not even making himself accessible to Washington's bigfoot journalists; Washington Post columnist David Broder hasn't seen the former vice-president in at least a year. As for fundraising, between April and June Gore raised a piddling $296,457 for his political-action committee; he currently has only $181,362 in cash on hand, having reportedly spent the balance. Kerry, by contrast, raised $500,000 for his political-action committee (PAC) in the same period and has an additional $3.4 million in his campaign account. In the same period, Edwards took in more than $2 million for his PAC, the bulk of it soft money that will become illegal after January 1, 2003. As for building a nationwide network, again, Gore's been absent. And all this is magnified in New Hampshire, where, two years before a presidential primary, presumptive candidates prepare to run by signing up political activists and cultivating local media.

But New Hampshire's political territory may not prove all that welcoming for Gore. WNTK talk-show host Arnie Arneson, whose broadcast is a must-do for would-be presidential candidates (Kerry put in a call to her show while he was canvassing the state last week), says New Hampshire voters are still frustrated by Gore and the exhausting demise of his 2000 campaign. "We were around him forever," she says. "It's not like he didn't answer every question at Dartmouth College, for forever, including [one] from the guy sweeping the floor with a broom." His Granite State supporters remain disheartened that the candidate with whom they spent so much time couldn't seal the deal.

To make matters worse, Gore's absence is costing him dearly in the "pre-primary" to attract support from New Hampshire's network of some 500 to 1000 political activists. These are the people who help set up all those quaint coffee klatches between candidates and voters, and who can make the difference that puts a candidate over the top. "New Hampshire activists are 24/7 activists," says Ray Buckley, the vice-chair of the state Democratic Party and the minority whip in New Hampshire's House of Representatives. "They can schedule events. They can attract people to come to events. Anybody worth a dime in this state has lists of people who supported a candidate in the past and schedules of where candidates have gone before."

In the 2000 primary, support from these activists - who favored him by 60 percent to 80 percent - gave Gore a great advantage over former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, his most serious rival for the nomination. These are the activists who stuck with Gore when he began to slide in New Hampshire in December 2000, before Bradley tanked and Arizona senator John McCain caught fire on the Republican side. Now, according to state Democratic sources, not only does Gore need to win over the activists who supported Bradley in 2000, but he must also get back many of those who supported him two years ago. Furthermore, the former vice-president would have to begin his efforts in New Hampshire without Nick Baldick - who coordinated his campaign there in 2000, but who is now helping Edwards - and possibly without many other activists, who are already working for Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, et al. For example, Concord-based lobbyist Jim Demers, who assisted Gore in 2000, is now with long-time friend Gephardt.

And when Kerry visited last week, he buttonholed several activists, including Buckley, for brief private chats. Nobody knows what they discussed, but it probably wasn't the Red Sox. Says one big-time Democratic operative who asked not to be named: "It's tough after people ask you, 'Can you be with me?' four or five times to say no. People like to get in on the ground floor early. I think people believe Gore may run again, but he hasn't said it. That puts Gore at a disadvantage in the pre-primary season."

WHILE FEW have officially distanced themselves from Gore, even fewer are driving around the state with gore 2004! signs. You don't see 2004 signs for the others either, although bumper stickers do appear, because of New Hampshire's proximity to Massachusetts. Typical is State Senator Caroline McCarley, who helped organize Edwards's February visit. McCarley, who also helped Gore during his October jaunt to the state, is officially uncommitted. "If Senator Kerry called and said, 'Would you host something?', I'd certainly say yes to that," she says. Still, she has nice things to say about Gore. "I really and truly think there are a lot of people across the state of New Hampshire eagerly awaiting Vice-President Gore's decision," she notes.

Gore loyalists take solace in the fact that many Democratic activists have not yet officially signed on to opposing campaigns - even though these activists are unofficially helping other candidates around the state. Among the faithful, there is the presumption that in 2004, Gore can break the traditional rules for a political candidate. They argue that their man is different because he won the popular vote in 2000 and has the status of a former vice-president and US senator. That, they say, means that he can hang back as long as possible without making his intentions known. He can raise money in a relatively short, intense period after the 2002 midterm election. His biography ensures that a swarm of New Hampshire activists will rally to his cause.

As an example of the kind of positive spin you hear from Gore die-hards, consider this. "Does it [his current lack of activity] mean he won't be able to run in an extravagant way like he's used to?" asks a Gore admirer. "Yeah. But he probably needs to run a tougher campaign." This comment reflects one strand of the deconstruction of Gore's 2000 campaign: that it was overrun with high-priced consultants. What had been trumpeted as one of his advantages back then - the fact that he could run as an incumbent with almost the same political organization as a sitting president - is now presented, even by Gore himself, as having been a weakness. Remember how, a couple of months ago, Gore blamed his loss on consultants and vowed to run as his own man this time? In essence, that's just more spin to paper over the fact that he isn't doing any better - in fact, he's doing worse - with consultants than he is with party activists in New Hampshire. His chief 2000 strategist, Bob Shrum, is leaning toward Edwards. His other political mastermind - the guy who shrewdly told him not to concede on election night - was Michael Whouley, who has a two-decade relationship with Kerry and is expected to end up working with Massachusetts's junior senator.

But the bottom line is that nobody in the Gore camp wants to consider one possible reason why a financially stacked candidate with an enormous organization - and a thriving economy! - could not win a resounding victory in 2000: Gore himself. And many in New Hampshire are well aware of that explanation.

Another spin line coming from the Gore camp is that the candidate is taking care of business. While not officially raising funds, he is "keeping his relationships" alive, according to one Gore operative. Indeed, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak reported July 21 that many donors are staying on the sidelines, waiting for Gore to make up his mind. Still, the fact that many of the BMGs (big-money guys) are out of the game works to the advantage of those who are successfully raising money now - especially Edwards and Kerry, who are banking cash through their own networks (Edwards has ties to the trial-lawyer community, while Kerry has alternate networks among Massachusetts voters and environmentalists, and a nationwide direct-mail list). "In 1988 and 1992 [and even 2000], the nomination was won by the person who won the money primaries," says a Democratic activist.

ALTHOUGH GORE avoided the Democratic Leadership Council event this past Monday, he did manage to lift his head out of the sand last Thursday, July 25, when he criticized Bush's handling of corporate misdealings (a smart move) and preparations for war with Iraq (a mistake if Saddam Hussein falls with ease). More important, this week Gore is convening his summer-training program for young political activists in Tennessee. His fans like to boast that the camp will serve as the training ground for his 2004 field staff. What this spin misses, however, is that Gore needs to generate his own organization anew because so many in his old one have given up on the twice-failed presidential candidate.

Ultimately, Gore's bunker brigade takes great solace in the recent Washington Post poll showing that 50 percent of Democrats still favor Gore over his rivals for the Democratic nomination by a ratio of more than five to one. For instance, the poll puts Senate majority leader Tom Daschle's support at nine percent (making him an unlikely candidate), with Gephardt's and Kerry's support tied at seven percent. But, rather than rejoicing, Gore's supporters ought to be crying in their beer. Here is a former Democratic Party nominee who actually won the popular vote, and the best he can do is 50 percent. This means that the other 50 percent of Democratic voters want anybody but Gore. Obviously, then, the former vice-president starts the 2004 election with less popular support, less money, less organizational support, and less help in New Hampshire than he had in 2000. If he had any sense, he'd stay home.

Since he's Al Gore, you can expect him to get in when it's already too late and, if he snags the nomination, muff the general election again - unless one of the would-be non-Gores, such as Kerry, Gephardt, or Edwards, can stop him in New Hampshire and one or two other states in the highly concentrated early primary season of 2004.

JWR contributor Seth Gitell is the political writer of the Boston Phoenix Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Seth Gitell