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Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 1999 /18 Tishrei, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Dems' race brightens Bush's chances -- IF REPUBLICANS SUDDENLY have a Buchanan problem in 2000, Democrats have a worse one: the prospect of a long, bruising, expensive presidential nomination fight.

Still an underdog, former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., is emerging as a real threat to Vice President Al Gore -- as evidenced by increasing willingness on the part of Gore aides to bad-mouth Bradley.

Only weeks ago, the Gore campaign claimed to be running an early general election campaign, its fire directed strictly at Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R). Bradley was being treated as too insignificant to criticize.

That's changed lately. Gore himself hasn't challenged Bradley -- though aides say he will "address him on the issues" -- but Gore advisers are on the attack.

"Bradley has been the darling of the elites for years," said one top aide. "But we've been waiting 15 years for the big ideas he was going to develop. He's never lived up to his promise. He's a very good critic, but he's never been very good at leading."

Other Gore aides note with pleasure that Bradley apparently won't propose a "comprehensive and universal" health care plan next week, implying that it was naive for him to promise one.

The reason Gore aides are unloading on Bradley, of course, is that he is catching up to Gore in key state polls in New Hampshire and New York and does better than Gore against Bush in some national matchups.

That is fueling restiveness among congressional Democrats fearful that Bush will bury Gore in a landslide and end hopes of recapturing the House.

"What worries me to death," said one Gore backer in the House, "is that the esteem and support for Gore even among my colleagues who have endorsed him is amoeba-deep."

There are also complaints that, despite promises to buck up the Gore organization, members of Congress receive no talking points from the Gore campaign to help bolster his message.

"I don't know where he's been for the last four days except by reading the papers," one House Democrat said. "I don't know what the theme of the day is unless I call and ask. There is no snap, crackle or pop to this organization."

And yet another Democratic activist and nominal Gore backer charged that Gore's campaign is "Mondalian in its message," meaning, akin to that of 1984 Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in its slavish service to interest groups.

Gore isn't over his organizational and financial difficulties, either. He is spending so much money on staff and the logistics required of a vice presidential entourage that he'll have no more cash on hand to spend in the primaries than Bradley will.

Even if Gore eventually wins a drawn-out contest, his cash will be depleted, while Bush likely will have a huge bankroll left over to begin general election campaigning.

To prepare for that eventuality, Gore has been desperately trying to recruit one of his top fundraisers to be general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, replacing former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer.

Both former DNC Finance Chairman Peter Knight and top Clinton fundraiser Terry McAuliffe have turned Gore down.

His latest choice is retiring Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, who's apparently willing. Romer had to be pushed into another job.

To an unprecedented extent when a contest is under way for the party's nomination, the DNC machinery is in one candidate's hands -- Gore's.

Gore appointed the No. 2 official at the committee, Joe Andrew, and former Gore aides have just been named chief of staff of the 2000 national convention and deputy to the national chairman.

DNC officials profess strict neutrality, but aides in both the Bradley and Gore campaigns say that "absolutely" the party machinery is Gore's. It could make a difference if the Bradley-Gore contest continues to Los Angeles, where credentials, platform and rules committee chairmen would be Gore appointees.

The dissension among Democrats only swells the blessings of the Bush campaign. So far, none of Bush's GOP rivals has become established as a real threat.

Bush aides acknowledge that if Pat Buchanan were to win the Reform Party nomination, it would hurt Bush, but probably not seriously. The latest Pew poll shows Bush beating Gore by 14 points in a three-way race.

Nor, Bush aides claim, are they particularly afraid of Bradley becoming the Democratic nominee. "He's going left, which would leave the center to us," one of them said. "There wouldn't be a united Democratic Party.

"And Bradley wouldn't have Gore's biggest advantage -- the ability to spend down the U.S. Treasury next year to get him elected. (President) Clinton is not going to do for Bradley what he'd do for Gore."

"We are not sitting down here afraid of Bradley," said a top Bush aide. The Bush high command still expects a bloodied Gore to be the Democratic nominee -- and relishes the prospect.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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