Gore Faces Spadework to Till Iowa Interest
By Dan Balz
Gore abandoned Iowa that year, didn't compete and finished last in the caucuses. As he begins his campaign for president in 2000, this time as the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination, he is still struggling to overcome the consequences of that decision a dozen years ago.
Gore was back in Iowa for the second time in a week today, promoting the Clinton administration's education policies, courting skeptical union workers and displaying more support from Democratic elected officials.
But everyone from Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D) and newly elected Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) to veterans of past caucuses say Gore needs to get beyond campaign speeches, rallies and endorsements. They said he should get busy organizing the state's 99 counties and wooing voters in a more personal way to avoid a stumble next year against former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, his only rival.
"What he needs to do is expand his grass-roots organizing," Harkin said in a telephone interview from Washington. "He has to do it county-by-county, precinct-by-precinct. I believe he can do it, but it has to be done."
For most of the day the priority was endorsements, not grass-roots politics. Gore began his campaign day in neighboring South Dakota, where he picked up the support of Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), as well as that of the state's other top Democrat, Sen. Tim Johnson.
"No one will walk into the White House in 2001 with greater experience," Daschle told a rally in Sioux Falls. "No one will have been more qualified to take over that responsibility than this man."
Gore also used the stop to read to first graders at an elementary school and trade high-fives with other children who gave him an enthusiastic reception in the school gym.
Throughout the day he promised administration initiatives to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, but said he would go farther if he becomes president. "Stand with me and we will bring truly revolutionary change to our public schools," he said.
Daschle's endorsement comes a week after Gore received the support of House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who was considered the vice president's biggest threat for the nomination until he decided to concentrate on helping Democrats win back the House and becoming speaker.
In Iowa, Rep. Leonard Boswell, the state's only Democratic House member, endorsed Gore. But absent in the early round of endorsements in Iowa are Harkin, the veteran senator who ran for the presidential nomination in 1992, and Vilsack, the first Democrat elected as governor here in three decades.
Harkin was one of President Clinton's most outspoken defenders during the Senate impeachment trial, but despite an affinity for Gore, he has not decided whether to make an endorsement. "I'm close to Gore; he's been a good vice president and a good friend," Harkin said. "I just haven't made an endorsement yet."
Harkin said he did not know whether he would change his mind. "I'm very sensitive to the need for Iowa Democrats to make their own decision and not feel they're being pushed by their leaders," he said. "The last thing Iowa Democrats would ever want attributed to them is that they're being taken for granted."
Gore advisers claim that won't happen. "It's important to show them we're not taking this for granted," one adviser said. "The worry of a front-runner's campaign is that it will be complacent. We will not be a complacent campaign."
Party strategists say Gore is in stronger shape in New Hampshire, home of the nation's first primary contest next year, than he is in Iowa, even though he has spent the last few years systematically courting key Iowa Democrats. He remains in an unusual spot for an Iowa front-runner: the clear favorite in early handicapping but lacking the natural base of a politician who has run in the state.
Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 and his support of Gore should help to push many of his loyalists to the vice president's side, but so far the movement has been slow.
Gore's team had hoped to use today's trip to begin courting Iowa Democrats at small-group meetings, but the endorsements took precedence. His last stop, however, was before a United Auto Workers audience that peppered him with tough questions about trade, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the global warming treaty and other issues. Acknowledging that "we have not agreed on every issue," Gore told the union audience: "I want you to know I stand with you." Gore advisers say more intensive organizing efforts are coming soon.
Harkin warned that Bradley may be getting a jump on Gore on that front. "Bradley is doing grass-roots organizing," Harkin said. "He has the time and I have indications that that's exactly what he's doing. It's very smart of him."
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