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Jewish World Review May 24, 2000 / 19 Iyar, 5760

Roger Simon

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Why AlGore is self-destructing -- THE PUBLIC OPINION POLLS that were so kind to Al Gore at the end of the primaries in March have now turned around, and in poll after poll Gore is not only trailing George W. Bush overall but lagging behind with nearly every demographic group.

Publicly, the Gore campaign is unconcerned, saying that few voters are paying attention. But privately, one adviser told me that Gore's Nashville headquarters is near "panic" and that the poll figures will probably get worse.

Gore advisers now expect Bush to emerge from the Republican convention in Philadelphia in early August with a double-digit lead. "But come Labor Day, if Gore is up, even, or down by only, say, four points, we have a horse race," one adviser said.

Two things will help get Gore there, according to his current plans: a dynamic Democratic convention that will focus attention on Gore and reintroduce him to the American people, and Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security.

But why is Gore doing so poorly in the polls, especially considering he has never been better on the stump? Two words, say Gore advisers: Bill Clinton.

"Clinton is still the dominant figure on the political stage," one adviser says, "and Hillary also draws attention away from Gore. Ronald Reagan did not overshadow George Bush in 1988 the way Clinton overshadows Gore."

Which is why the Gore staff is so concerned about what role Clinton will play at the Democratic convention.

"Does he speak?" one adviser said. "Does Hillary speak? And what night? And then what does Clinton do? Does he leave town?"

Needless to say, the Gore staff has already researched the last time a vice president took the reins from a president at a convention: It was 1988 at the Superdome in New Orleans, and Ronald Reagan spoke on opening night to place as much of an interval as possible between his speech and Bush's speech on the final night.

"I'm clueless!"
Reagan gave an emotional address, calling on Bush to "win one for the Gipper," and then departed for California the next morning.

It may not be so easy to pry Clinton out of Los Angeles, however. He not only loves Tinseltown but is deep into nostalgia these days.

"I'll miss Camp David. I'll miss the Marine Band. I'll miss flying on Air Force One," Clinton said recently. Which sounds like a guy who is not going to be in any hurry to leave a convention -- or all those parties.

Blaming Clinton for their problems may strike some as more than a little unfair, but Gore's advisers find blaming Bill a lot easier than blaming Al. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that voters like where Gore stands on the issues; they just don't seem to like Gore.

So I asked Gore during an interview last week aboard Air Force Two whether he felt voters made their decision based on the likability of the candidate.

"I think a lot of factors go into that," Gore replied. "Do they agree with this person on the issues? Do they trust this person's judgment? Do they think this person is a good leader capable of being a good president? Is this person going to do the right thing? Is this person going to do the responsible thing? Does this person have the experience to be president? I think those are the questions."

And Gore is convinced that Social Security will be the issue that will help put him over the top and focus laserlike attention on what he calls the three basic questions of this presidential campaign: "Who will do the right thing? Who will do the responsible thing? And who has the experience to be president?"

Electing George Bush, he told me, will imperil "the minimum standards of decency" that America has established for its senior citizens.

Softly striking the table in front of him with a clenched fist as he spoke, Gore said: "I really feel very strongly about this. This is bedrock stuff. If we go down his path, people will get hurt."

So far, however, Bush has been playing a winning game, according to the polls, by moving toward the center and emphasizing large policy issues, while Gore spends a lot of time on low-key events like "School Days," where he spends the entire day in school. He likes this so much, he is thinking about supplementing them with "Job Days" and "Family Days." Gore will also soon be making policy speeches on the role of the father in society.

"By the time we get to Election Day, the public will have seen the qualities of both men over a period of time," said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane. "And they will see that Gore is a blue chip and Bush is a junk bond -- high yield but high risk."

One thing Bush definitely does risk more than Gore is contact with the press. Even though reporters beat Bush up regularly for his verbal gaffes, he still talks to them nearly every day; the Gore campaign has never provided the same degree of contact.

On the other hand, the campaign realizes that when Bush schmoozes with reporters it makes him look more likable, so Gore has been trying to chat up the press more frequently.

Not long ago, however, when Gore came to the back of Air Force Two after a long day, he found that reporters did not jump to their feet with notebooks and tape recorders in hand.

Instead, those who were still awake continued to watch the movie with their headphones on. And when it became clear to Gore that they were not going to interrupt their viewing pleasure for him, he retreated back to the front of the plane.

While Lehane voiced mock indignation at this, he did admit that there are some things even a vice president cannot compete with.

"They were watching 'American Beauty,'" he said.

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