Gore Worries House Democrats
By Ceci Connolly and Juliet Eilperin
Participants in the closed-door session said some members complained that the Gore team is neglecting key Democratic constituencies such as unions, minorities, inner-city residents and blue-collar workers. A few also challenged the administration's Kosovo policy, worrying that a protracted overseas conflict will detract from the party's domestic agenda for the 2000 campaign.
When Rep. Robert T. Matsui (Calif.) pressed Gore's aides for assurances the White House will not leave them out of critical Social Security negotiations, many in the room applauded, said two people in the meeting.
"The vice president should make clear very soon what his candidacy is all about," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii), who spoke on behalf of public sector employees and urged an end to the war in Yugoslavia. "The president should be gearing down, and the vice president should be gearing up."
One Democratic aide attributed the questions to "lingering suspicions" on Capitol Hill about President Clinton. "The question is whether Gore will pay a price for that."
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (Ill.) said lawmakers need to speak to the people who have "Gore's ear" on substantive policy matters, and not the campaign "mechanics." He reiterated concerns he had written to Gore's campaign manager about two weeks ago. In the letter, he said Gore can separate himself from Clinton by targeting his economic message on those who have not shared in the good times. "In my district, the economy has not improved during the Clinton administration," Jackson wrote to Craig Smith. Weak spots in the economy, Jackson predicted, "will fuel apathy and depress voter turnout."
The meeting highlighted splits in the party. While Jackson complained about reports that Gore -- with the help of the Democratic Leadership Council -- is crafting a centrist campaign message, others embraced that approach.
"He's forming his message in such a way that it resonates in the Democratic strongholds and independent suburban areas," said Rep. James P. Moran (Va.), who described the session as "a mutual love fest" with just a "little contention."
About 50 Democrats attended the briefing with Smith, media adviser Bill Knapp and pollster Mark Penn, who stressed Gore's large lead in primary poll matchups with Democrat Bill Bradley. "We've eliminated our strongest opponents, our fund-raising is doing well and now we are entering a new more aggressive phase of the campaign," Knapp said, according to one account.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), who considered challenging Gore, urged colleagues to campaign for Gore back home as well as in Iowa and New Hampshire. Acknowledging Gore's campaign "could be better," Gephardt said he is pleased to see more attention on "getting better organized in the early states."
Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.), echoing Penn's presentation, said the popularity ratings of Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) are bound to fall. "When voters understand who he is and his relationship to the right, they will not be so enamored by him," she said.
Several lawmakers said they are eager to run with Gore on popular issues, such as education and health care. Waters and others estimate 170 of the 211 House Democrats support Gore.
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