Gore Shakes Up a Troubled Campaign
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 1999; Page A1
Vice President Gore attempted to reinvent his presidential campaign yesterday, announcing he will move his headquarters to Tennessee and refocus his strategy on the surprisingly aggressive challenge by former senator Bill Bradley.
The dramatic upheaval follows months of increasingly weak polls, internal strife and financial woes for Gore -- money problems that came into sharp focus late yesterday as Gore's advisers conceded they raised an anemic $6.5 million and spent almost every penny raised in the third quarter.
Acknowledging the "changing dynamic" of his fight for the Democratic nomination and saying later he felt like "the underdog," Gore said he was challenging Bradley to a "series of debates on specific issues -- a lot of them."
The debate offer and abrupt relocation are part of a broad make-over for the vice president's campaign that includes an updated wardrobe, a retooled stump speech and a smaller, hungrier staff.
"We anticipate the group in Nashville will be leaner and hopefully tougher," said campaign chairman Tony Coelho. "I'm packing my bags and learning country music."
Since spring, the vice president has struggled to find the right team, message and style to woo the voters. His top-heavy operation, beset by infighting and in a town that feeds on political intrigue, has prompted President Clinton to worry in recent months about Gore's being trapped in the Washington "echo chamber."
Yesterday, from the decision to make the announcement at headquarters himself to his declaration that he had not solicited Clinton's advice, Gore sought to paint a new take-charge image.
"I've instructed my campaign chair, Tony Coelho, to move this whole campaign, lock, stock and barrel, to Nashville," the vice president said, sporting his new good-for-television look: blue shirt, yellow tie and fitted three-button suit. "And one week from today, I'm going to personally open the new headquarters in Nashville, on Church Street."
Calling this "a brand-new campaign," Gore said his goal was to move his political operation "out of the Beltway and into the heartland."
The move is largely symbolic, however. A product of Washington from his days at St. Alban's to his 16 years in Congress, Gore will continue to live at the Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Avenue and carry out his duties as vice president.
Reaction to Gore's decision varied from praise by many Democrats yearning for any sort of shake-up to skepticism by others who suspect the problems affecting Gore are more fundamental.
Consultant James Carville, a former Clinton strategist who remains close to the Clintons, called the move an important symbolic step. "The change of address is fine," he said. "The important thing is the change of attitude, and that is really what's going to make the difference."
"They're flailing around," said veteran Democratic consultant Ray Strother. "It just has all the signs of a campaign in search of itself."
The latest evidence of Gore's difficulties came -- not accidentally -- on the same day he called his surprise news conference. Opting to release bad news on a hectic day, top advisers said Gore's report to the Federal Election Commission on Friday will show he posted his worst fund-raising quarter of the year. They estimated he spent about $6 million and has about $10 million in the bank. "It's obviously a problem," said one dejected Gore fund-raiser.
Figures were not available last night for Bradley, who managed to keep pace with Gore in the money chase for the first half of 1999, but his strategists said the former NBA star will remain competitive financially.
Aside from the symbolic and psychological benefits of moving outside Washington, Gore aides said, the geographic shift will also mean a reduction in staff -- some aides will not want to move and Gore has a large volunteer corps in his home state. Already, about 40 paid fund-raisers were set to move soon to the Democratic National Committee. There was also speculation yesterday that several higher-ranking aides and consultants would use the Tennessee move to quietly fade away.
"It's a weeding-out process," said one Gore ally.
Some veteran Republicans tipped their hat to what they saw as an attention-grabbing maneuver that should change the subject away from the spate of negative publicity, though Gore's rivals saw it differently.
"You can take the campaign out of Washington, but you can't take Washington out of the candidate," said Mindy Tucker, spokeswoman for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP front-runner.
"For the last 10 months, the vice president has been ignoring me," Bradley said. "Now he's going to debate me? I think it shows we're making some progress."
The two Democrats are scheduled to appear at a party dinner in Des Moines Oct. 9 and Bradley has accepted an invitation to debate in New Hampshire Oct. 27.
Several Gore allies said he has been contemplating a dramatic move for a couple of months, with the pressure for radical change reaching a crescendo within the last 10 days. Some advisers opposed the relocation, noting it will disrupt the campaign's work, but others including media adviser Carter Eskew, Gore's brother-in-law Frank Hunger and Clinton backed the idea.
"You've probably heard the president talk about how important he thought it was to headquarter his election bid out of Little Rock and resist attempts to take it to Washington," White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart said. "He just believes that you're better off closer to the people outside the Beltway."
Monday night, after a fund-raiser with comedian Bill Cosby, Gore summoned Eskew and Coelho to his residence. He informed them that he was moving the campaign operation to Nashville and asked them if they would move there, campaign officials said. Both replied yes, although yesterday other stunned aides were uncertain what to do.
"If I'm lucky enough to get an invite, I'll go," said Laura Quinn, communications director in the vice president's office.
As the son of a senator, Gore spent his summers on the family farm in Nashville. He also worked as a newspaper reporter there after returning from Vietnam.
Yesterday, he remembered with fondness political victories waged from Tennessee and noted that already friends were offering spare bedrooms to transplanted Washingtonians.
"I feel like the underdog," Gore said last night on CNN's "Larry King Live." "I'm going to campaign like the underdog and I think that's the way to get elected."
Though he looked weary, Gore was energetic as he parried with reporters earlier: "I'm going to fight my heart out for every single vote."
As if to illustrate his point, Gore closed the news conference with a personal pitch to the assembled reporters: "I would like to personally ask -- I know you can't tip your hand, and won't, but I would like to ask all of you for your votes, sincerely."
Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company