Poll Suggests Unease About Gore's Style
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 16, 1999; Page A1
As he begins his quest for the White House, Vice President Gore faces a large challenge: Most voters want the country to continue on the path laid out by President Clinton but are not convinced Albert Gore is the person to do it.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found the public's doubts about Gore's leadership capacity and coolness to his personality could tip the election to the Republicans. While the vice president is popular among Democrats, many voters think he is too boring or too liberal and worry that he will not keep the economy thriving.
"I think his direction is similar to Clinton's," said Judy Sandler, a Democrat and retired fashion consultant in Marco Island, Fla. "But I think he could use some public speaking teaching. I think he's boring. I wish he had more charisma."
A majority of those polled - 56 percent - said they want a president who will keep the country moving in the direction Clinton has been taking it, rather than a new direction. And by 68 percent to 21 percent, they say they think that Gore's positions on important issues are basically the same as Clinton's. But the same sample found Gore trailing the two early leaders in polls for the GOP nomination - 13 points behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush and 8 points behind Elizabeth Dole.
While Gore matches up well against Bush on personal character traits, he lags by 27 percentage points in the rating for strong leadership. As a result, there is much less enthusiasm about the prospect of his moving up to the Oval Office.
"He doesn't strike me, really, as a leader," said Anita Campone, a 59-year-old Bronx Democrat and school bus monitor. "He's more in the background now. I'd have to hear a lot more from him."
Other vice presidents have faced - and overcome - the weak leadership problem Gore now confronts. In a January 1988 poll, then-Vice President George Bush, the present Texas governor's father, lagged 12 points behind then-Sen. Robert J. Dole as a strong leader, but he defeated Dole in New Hampshire and went on to capture the nomination. He began the general election trailing the Democratic nominee, Michael S. Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, by 8 points in leadership, and beat him handily.
Eleven months before the first delegate contests, only two out of five voters say they have enough information on Gore and one out of five about George W. Bush to know who should be president.
Gore aides said he is just setting out to emerge from the large shadow Clinton casts - that was the purpose of his trip yesterday to New Hampshire and Iowa - and said they were confident he could establish the leadership profile people seek in a president.
But Gerry Chervinsky, an independent pollster in Boston who has done much work in the leadoff primary state of New Hampshire, said, "Gore's public image looks very much like Walter Mondale," the former Democratic vice president who lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984. "There is trustworthiness. He is a solid player. But there's nothing inspirational about the guy. I don't see Gore connecting."
While six out of 10 of those polled say they approve of the job Gore is doing as vice president, that does not translate into support for the top post. Nearly four out of 10 of those who approve of Gore as vice president - 38 percent - say they would vote for Bush.
At this early stage of the process, with Gore, Bush and Dole having formed exploratory committees and begun serious fund-raising but not yet having made a formal declaration of candidacy, the images of the candidates are only vaguely formed and are subject to change.
Gore, however, has had more than six years in the office down the hall from the president and has campaigned in three national elections - once for the presidential nomination and twice as No. 2 man on the Democratic ticket.
"Despite his career and his high profile within the administration," an aide said yesterday, "the vice president is a blank slate. When he appears as a presidential candidate, people will begin to understand what he's about."
He has a lot to fill in. The Post-ABC survey found only one-third of the people know he served in the Senate before becoming vice president. A similarly small number could identify Tennessee as his home state.
The only issue even one-third of the people could recall as a Gore focus in the administration is the environment. "Reinventing government," the trademark management reform effort he has championed since the earliest days in office, was picked by only 3 percent as a Gore specialty.
Tim Himes, 42, a research scientist in Philadelphia, praised Gore's "pro-environment" stand. "That is one of his strong points." But Himes, a Democrat, added, "I'm kind of lukewarm on him, other than on environmental issues," while being favorably impressed with Bush and Dole.
Ed Sarpolus, an independent pollster in Michigan, said Gore "has to show some emotion. Otherwise, George Bush will beat him just on charisma."
Interviews with some of the voters in the Post-ABC News poll backed up that impression. "I like Al Gore, but he is sort of blah," said Linda Smick, 50, a Democratic elementary school teacher in Roanoke. "He doesn't have an outgoing personality. He's not a speaker like Bill Clinton." She added, however, that Gore "had enough experience with the government [that] I would feel comfortable with him leading the country. . . . I feel like he's a really good man."
The profile that emerged of Gore in the poll showed many agree with her. He matches Bush at 67 percent in having high personal moral and ethical standards and is within a few points on honesty and understanding people's problems.
But there is a 6-point gap on standing up for his convictions, an 8-point gap on having new ideas, a 9-point gap on having a vision for the future and a 10-point gap on keeping the economy strong. The striking difference, however, is on leadership; 68 percent say they see Bush as a strong leader; only 41 percent, Gore.
One Gore aide said yesterday, "People assume you're a strong leader if you're governor of Texas. As vice president, they don't know." Chris Lahane, the vice president's press secretary, said it was just a matter of time before that happens. "Throughout his career, people have known Al Gore as a visionary with a great capacity for ideas," he said. "That will be demonstrated again."
First, however, Gore must find a way to engage voters' interest. The poll found 56 percent described Gore as boring, while 64 percent found Bush's personality "interesting." In another comparison, 31 percent said Gore's views on most issues are too liberal for them, while only 20 percent found Bush's views too conservative.
A third potential problem for Gore concerns the charges of impropriety in his fund-raising for the 1996 Democratic campaign. Although Attorney General Janet Reno found no credible evidence requiring the appointment of an independent counsel, the stories about Gore's fund-raising calls from the White House and his visit to a Buddhist temple fund-raiser in Los Angeles have received wide publicity.
In the poll, 57 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate accused of improper fund-raising. By comparison, 40 percent said they would be less likely to vote for one who used to be a heavy drinker, as Bush has acknowledged he once was.
The Post-ABC poll found Bush with virtually unanimous support from Republicans - 94 percent - in a trial heat against Gore, while the vice president holds three of every four Democrats. Gore trails Bush by 56 percent to 37 percent among independents.
Dawn Brooks, an independent in Vista, Calif., who makes burial headstones, said that because of "the campaign contribution issues, the Buddhist temples, the phone calls," Gore sounds to her "a lot like Clinton. Personally, he may be a very moral man . . . but I don't see him as being any more real or any more truthful or any more honest than Clinton's been."
Democratic presidential candidates typically win among women - not so Gore. Bush leads by eight points among women (51 percent to 43 percent) and by 19 points among men (57 percent to 38 percent).
The vulnerabilities exposed in the poll may bear much more on Gore in a general election than in a Democratic primary. Among self-identified Democrats, Gore has a 71 percent favorable rating. Among registered voters who identified themselves as Democrats, he led his only announced rival, former senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), 59 percent to 20 percent, with another 16 percent choosing possible candidate Jesse L. Jackson.
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
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