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Jewish World Review Oct. 5, 1999 /25 Tishrei, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Gore moves: Desperate but necessary -- DESPERATE STRAITS call for desperate measures. At least Vice President Al Gore has recognized his predicament -- a campaign mired in pessimism -- and decided to institute major change.

Moving his campaign staff to Nashville, Tenn., should save money and, supporters say, get it out of the poisonous surroundings of Washington.

This assumes, of course, that Gore is willing to sharply trim back his campaign organization, eliminating duplicate layers of pollsters and consultants. That requires his making choices among advisers -- and the right choices.

Challenging his Democratic rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.), to a series of policy debates also offers Gore the opportunity to gain high-level attention in competitive surroundings where he's previously excelled.

Bradley will be hard-pressed to turn Gore down. If he does, he'll look like he's running from a fight. If the debates take place, Gore has proved in past exchanges -- notably with the Reform Party's Ross Perot -- that he's tough.

It's clear a Gore shake-up was necessary. He increasingly was losing ground to Bradley and might hope to rely on strategic assets such as proportional representation in awarding convention delegates and party-pro "super-delegates."

Proportional representation means that even if Bradley won some Northeast primaries by, say 52 to 48 percent, he'd only garner 4 percent more delegates than Gore -- ground Gore theoretically could make up with wins in the South and West.

Then at the Democratic convention, Gore would have the bulk of support from Members of Congress, governors and members of the Democratic National Committee, who cast 20 percent of all convention ballots and are not bound by their states' primary results.

Still, as matters were going, there was no life in the Gore campaign and Gore was being deluged in bad news -- declining poll ratings vis-a-vis Bradley and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Gore was about to get more bad news when new financial reports come out showing Bradley even with Gore or possibly ahead in spendable cash on hand.

After trying to ignore Bradley for months so as not to dignify him, Gore aides started bad-mouthing him. The latest Gore theme was that, for all his talk, Bradley was devoid of big ideas.

That rap proved empty as of Tuesday, when Bradley delivered a health care policy speech so big in its sweep that Gore aides promptly denounced it as "wildly expensive" because it would cost $650 billion over 10 years and eat up funds that are needed for Medicare, education and tax cuts.

Bradley's plan, which simultaneously moved to the right of Gore and to the left, would guarantee health insurance coverage for 95 percent of the 45 million Americans who lack it, whereas Gore's plan -- unveiled in haste to beat Bradley to the gate -- would cover only children.

Gore had spent much of 1999 unveiling one major policy initiative after another -- on subjects like crime, education, family policy and high-tech commerce -- earning praise from wonks but garnering pitifully little media attention or political credit.

Prior to Wednesday's dramatic move, Gore's high command apparently had abandoned the policy-first strategy and decided to shift to re-establishing Gore's identity as a person. Bradley has been pursuing the opposite strategy. Having spent the spring and summer speaking only in generalities to establish personal credibility, Bradley is now on a policy track. The front-page attention given to his health care speech showed that his timing was good.

According to Republican health policy expert Deborah Steelman, Bradley's plan went to Gore's left in promising an unlimited prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients.

But she said it went right in offering coverage for the uninsured through the competitive free market system that federal employees use to buy their insurance from private companies based on coverage and cost.

The Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan is the model recommended by Republicans and New Democrats on the Bipartisan Medicare Commission -- but rejected by liberals and the White House -- and may well be the model for Bush's health program.

Gore's basic problems have little to do with the substance of policy, however, and everything to do with politics, perceptions and money.

According to Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., a Gore backer, "Every time you'd meet a Gore staffer, they'd be down in the dumps. You'd give them advice -- `Move!' `Change!'

`Galvanize!' It's good they're doing something." Tauscher, who said she'd not been briefed on the Nashville decision beforehand, said Gore would be sending a message to voters that "`I'm not only a creature of Washington, D.C.' Also, it gets you away from the political elites, who are the people with the severest case of Clinton fatigue."

Gore can't escape the fact that he's Bill Clinton's vice president, but he will be able to spend most of his time either in Tennessee or out in the country -- where residents have other things to do than think about Clinton.

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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