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Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 1999 /9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Gore scores among party big shots, but polls go South -- LOS ANGELES --- For months, the cruel joke has been building that Vice President Al Gore's candidacy was like a dog food that the dogs just won't eat.

Now, it's clear that the Great Danes and Saint Bernards of the Democratic Party find it edible, or even delicious. But, the jury is still out among run-of-the-mill canines who'll decide if the product sells.

Gore was endorsed here Wednesday by the mighty AFL-CIO. On Monday, he was backed by the entire Democratic establishment in Nevada.

Feminist Gloria Steinem all but endorsed him Tuesday. And on Thursday, Gore will be the featured speaker at the annual convention of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

But new polls indicate that Gore's lead over rival Bill Bradley continues to erode among rank-and-file Democrats despite a shake-up in his campaign and accusations that Bradley abandoned the party in time of need.

Whereas Gore led Bradley by 63 to 30 percent in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in September, by last weekend he was ahead, 51 to 39 percent.

Bradley actually leads Gore among middle-income Democrats making more than $30,000 a year, who are likely to turn out in primary elections.

New state polls show Bradley leading Gore in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Gore's performance at several stops in Nevada and California this week also raise doubts as to whether his vaunted new campaign style is as "liberated" and "loose" as advertised.

Interviews with voters at one Nevada school confirm poll findings that Gore's association with President Clinton eats like acid at his presidential hopes.

Gore aides naturally dismissed the polls as unimportant while tooting the AFL-CIO endorsement as a Gore victory in "the first primary of 2000." Indeed, the endorsement assured Gore the first delegates to the Democratic National Convention -- 80 union representatives who will be "super-delegates."

Moreover, the endorsement assures Gore of crucial on-the-ground help in primary contests: phone callers, organizers and get-out-the-vote experts.

Endorsements do have a downside, though, rendering Gore the candidate of the "party bosses" and Bradley the "outsider." The union nod also raises the question: What did Gore have to promise to get it?

There is an answer: He has changed his position on trade, moving away from the one the Clinton administration took on NAFTA and fast-track to the one favored by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), a labor stalwart.

Gore now says labor and environmental standards should be integral, enforceable parts of future international trade agreements -- not set forth in legally ambiguous side agreements, as in NAFTA.

Bradley's position is that labor and environmental safeguards should be "strongly taken into account" when negotiating agreements, but need not be covered in the text of treaties.

The distinction can be crucial both in getting foreign countries to bargain and in getting Congressional Republicans to approve agreements.

Gore's new stance still leaves him more a free-trader than the union movement, but less than the DLC was during past fights over NAFTA and fast-track.

The Gore endorsement was the first early nod the AFL-CIO has delivered since it tapped Walter Mondale before the 1984 primaries.

Increasingly, the Gore-Bradley contest resembles the battle that year between Mondale and then-Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.).

Gore, like Mondale, is the candidate of entrenched interests. Bradley, like Hart, is the "new ideas" challenger -- although this time the challenger has as much money as the insider, not counting union contributions.

Gore got the unanimous backing of Nevada pols, for instance, because they appreciate his opposition to depositing the nation's nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, and his support for "local option" on the spread of gambling.

Bradley opposed allowing sports betting in Atlantic City, N.J., and voted to put lethal nuclear waste -- currently stored in rotting containers at hundreds of sites around the country -- in Nevada.

Under pressure from Bradley, Gore this month decided to change his marketing technique, move his headquarters to Nashville, Tenn., throw away his prepared texts, challenge Bradley and "speak from my heart."

Gore was animated at the Nevada endorsement event at a casino in Las Vegas, telling jokes and trashing Republicans.

However, at a later fundraiser, a school event in Nevada and a "Voters for Choice" event presided over by Steinem, he was his old wooden self. Those at the Steinem event clearly appreciated his unswerving support for abortion "choice," but at the school, several parents and teachers I spoke to said they believe Gore is "a decent person" but they could not vote for him.

"He stood by Clinton," one teacher said. "He should have spoken out when the President lied." A parent said, "Clinton provided a terrible example for children."

In 1984, Mondale did win the Democratic nomination. If Gore wins, it looks like it will be because the big dogs in the party sell his product hard to the little ones.

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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