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  •   The Hum of Democratic Hopefuls

    Former senator Bill Bradley formed an exploratory committee to raise money for a possible presidential bid. (AP)
    By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 6, 1998; Page A4

    The Democratic presidential nomination in 2000 is Vice President Gore's to lose, and as the battle for that prize was joined last week, Gore signaled that he is preparing to run a classic front-runner's campaign to avoid losing it: cautious, conventional and risk-free.

    Gore begins the race with enormous advantages over his potential rivals that come with being President Clinton's vice president. He commands media attention, he controls the institutional levers of the party, he has a large cast of experienced advisers and operatives, he can develop links to key constituencies and he can raise money by the bucketful.

    How much he will have to say about the future of his party and the country is another question, and that is the opening that his potential rivals will seek to exploit as they attempt to take the nomination away from him. As a veteran of past presidential campaigns put it yesterday, "A campaign without an edge opens up a political space for candidates who are willing to be both bold and specific."

    Despite his many advantages, Gore could end up with lots of challengers, among them some of the party's biggest names. Former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey is all but in with the formation of a presidential exploratory committee. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska sounds like a man preparing to run. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) won't decide whether to run for president until early next year but may find it irresistible, despite the lure of trying to become speaker by winning back the House in 2000.

    Gore advisers welcome a crowded field, believing that will make it more difficult for the anti-Gore constituency within the party to coalesce around a single candidate. "Frankly, the more the merrier," one Gore adviser said Friday. "We've got our base. Go get your base."

    Gore did nothing this week to make it more difficult for his challengers to gain a toehold in the debate over the future of the party after Clinton. In reality, some Democrats believe he may have missed an opportunity at a gathering last Wednesday hosted by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the centrist body that was Clinton's launching pad for rethinking Democratic dogma and the presidency.

    Many of Gore's potential rivals were there. Kerrey laid out a provocative agenda that challenged party doctrine on Social Security (he favors partial privatization) and entitlements (he said Medicare and Medicaid should be replaced with a new comprehensive health care program). Some people at the meeting suggested Kerrey's speech was in the spirit of the defining speech Clinton gave at a DLC meeting in Cleveland in May 1991.

    Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who also is considering a presidential candidacy, challenged an important Democratic constituency -- the teacher's unions -- in calling for substantial reforms of public education. Gephardt, whose potential candidacy has absorbed considerable time among Gore advisers in the past two years, talked about a "progressive flat tax" as an alternative to Republican reform plans.

    But the vice president drew the coveted keynote spot at lunch. The room was packed, and the number of Gore advisers hovering around the edges underscored that this was not an ordinary moment. It represented a significant opportunity for the man who hopes to lead his party into the next century. But Gore delivered a speech filled with generalizations and the catch phrase "practical idealism" that offered only a few hints of the priorities and issues he may want to talk about in a presidential campaign.

    One quote summed up the directionless quality of some of his rhetoric: "Let us move politics not only farther forward, but also upward, to a higher place, to a place far beyond the false divisions and dichotomies of the past."

    In addition, Gore's decision to critique the "compassionate conservatism" of Texas's Republican Gov. George W. Bush (though Gore never mentioned him by name) suggested he worries more about a general election matchup than challenges for the nomination.

    Gore advisers took issue with critics who said the speech lacked content.

    A senior adviser to Gore said, "If [people] are saying he didn't spell out a 26-point blueprint for what he would do as president in 2001, this wasn't the time for it."

    But others had a different view. "The vice president seemed to be working against two kinds of constraints," said a veteran of past campaigns. "The first is that as a leading member of an ongoing administration, it is difficult for him to break ground that has not been broken by the president. That's a structural fact with which every sitting vice president has to cope.

    "The second kind of constraint is more nearly self-imposed," he added. "That is, the vice president clearly wants to remain if not the first choice of every part of the party, a highly acceptable choice for every part of the party. That suggests an approach that makes as few enemies as possible. The obvious difficulty is that it also lacks intensity and tends not to generate much intensity."

    Republican pollster Robert Teeter recalled the constraints George Bush, Ronald Reagan's vice president, was under when he sought the 1988 GOP nomination. "You have a strategy dictated for you and you have no degrees of freedom," he said, adding: "Every week somebody tells you how you've got to make your own case, be more independent, and there are some of those things you can't do."

    But on balance, he said, the advantages of Gore's situation outweigh the disadvantages.

    Whether any of Gore's potential rivals can find the issues and the excitement to put together a genuine challenge remains a big question mark.

    Bradley, in brief remarks upon opening his exploratory committee on Friday, had little to say about the issues. Some of those he singled out for attention -- persistent poverty among children, the lack of health insurance for millions of Americans -- suggested that he will run to Gore's left. But in the past, Bradley has sounded like he would run a more unconventional campaign.

    Kerrey rarely shies away from big issues or bold ideas. Whether his passions about Social Security and other entitlement programs will spark a presidential candidacy won't be known for another week.

    But Democratic nomination fights of the past demonstrate that there is room for someone with a powerful idea or a sense of the future to attract not only attention but support. Democratic strategists say Gore must guard against the complacency that can come with being the front-runner and a sitting vice president to prevent any of his rivals from gaining that edge.

    Without the constraints on him, Gore likely would be in the thick of any debate about where the Democrats are going. Throughout his political career he has made his mark as someone who has thought deeply and sometimes provocatively on policy. His advisers say he will continue to show that talent within the administration as Clinton develops a new budget and his State of the Union address.

    But the burdens of being a front-runner are real. And the prospect of running for the equivalent of a third Clinton term means he will be pulled to be a candidate of the status quo.

    As Kerry said last week, "Yesterday's New Democrat can very easily become today's defender of conventional wisdom."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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