Gore's Silent Campaign Is Up and Running
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 1998; Page A06
SAN DIEGOVice President Gore's friends and advisers know that striving openly to win the White House a full 19 months before the first primary could look too ardently ambitious. When asked how Gore is positioning himself for 2000, they say noble-sounding things like: "The best politics for Al Gore is to be the best vice president he can be."
If so, Gore's definition of being a good vice president must mean waging the same kind of perpetual campaign made famous by his boss, Bill Clinton. Whatever his exceedingly discreet aides say, the evidence shows that as of this month, "Gore 2000" is up and running at a brisk clip.
During a hectic three-day West Coast swing, Gore high-fived with Seattle youngsters as he touted the virtues of reading, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with President Clinton on the rocky shores of Monterey Bay as they announced a 10-year ban on offshore oil drilling and promised officers walking the beat in a rough-and-tumble San Diego neighborhood $3.6 million to build a new police station.
"The longer he is able to stay above the fray and be associated with popular policy pronouncements, the better off he is," said one Democratic operative backing Gore. "It is campaigning by another name, a skill Bill Clinton developed into an art form."
Out of camera range, Gore raised more than $1 million for Democrats and touched base with some of the money sources and activists critical to a national campaign.
Gore will not appear on a single ballot this year, but the 1998 election cycle, with its high-stakes congressional races, is a critical phase in his ramp up to the next presidential campaign. By year's end, his supporters say, the vice president should be well on his way to developing the message and mechanics needed to run his own national campaign.
Specifically, he must hone in on a set of key issues the public will identify with him; build a vast network of financial, intellectual and grass-roots talent; continue to refine his stump style; and collect a bundle of IOUs from Democratic candidates across the country grateful for his assistance this year.
His aides say he will travel two or three days a week from now through Labor Day and will average four days a week on the road in the fall. Through his newly formed political action committee, Gore hopes to distribute $4 million this year, and he will raise millions more for other candidates and the party committees.
During a quick visit to New Jersey on Monday, Gore raised $200,000 for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and $225,000 for unions fighting ballot initiatives that would require members' permission to use dues for political work. Next week he travels to Texas to assist freshman Rep. Jim Turner (D) and Garry Mauro, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
"We're going to try to be as many places as we possibly can," said Gore's political director, Maurice Daniels.
At the start of 1998, Gore's team settled on the broad outlines of his travel schedule for the year, determining how many visits he would make to each critical state. They focused on states important in the presidential primary process (New Hampshire, Iowa, New York) and the general election (Florida, Ohio, Michigan).
The plan follows the Clinton victory map with a few twists. Like Clinton, Gore has made California and its 54 electoral votes a top priority. But while the president connected more readily with the Hollywood crowd, Gore has found a home in Silicon Valley. And although Clinton lost North Carolina in 1996, Gore, having won the state's primary in 1988, sees an opportunity there.
Assuming Al Gore Inc. goes on sale to the American public in 2000, think of 1998 as the test-marketing period.
From the elaborate matrix developed to plot his travel schedule to the simplest photo opportunity, very little is left to chance in the Gore operation. And the public is exposed to only the most carefully chosen moments in his busy day.
In California, for example, the news media were invited to watch from the banks of Monterey Bay as the fit and tan vice president paddled in a kayak alongside a cuddly otter, but reporters were left standing in the driveway when he schmoozed with high-tech entrepreneurs at a $200,000 fund-raiser in Silicon Valley the night before.
"Sure there are criticisms he is stiff," host Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Novell Inc., said in an interview. "But one-on-one this guy has no peer in understanding the effects of technology on society."
Under a tent at Schmidt's hillside mansion, Gore nibbled on grilled shrimp with some of the country's most successful and wealthiest business leaders, many not Democrats but Gore admirers nonetheless.
Though the backdrops and supporting characters may change, Gore's road show follows a script: a quick media hit for the local press, raise money for another Democrat and quietly cultivate the key people he will need in 2000. The most important work is done behind the scenes.
In Los Angeles, he ate breakfast with a dozen gay activists, a constituency that has become increasingly influential in Democratic politics.
"He is now beginning to emerge in his own right," said David Mixner, one of the participants and onetime Clinton campaign adviser. "This meeting was more about Al Gore and less about President Clinton."
The hour-plus private session was uneventful, Mixner said, but went a long way toward cultivating the gay community. So too was the fund-raiser Gore headlined Saturday night in San Diego for Christine Kehoe, a lesbian city councilor challenging Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R).
"We're completely thrilled," said Kehoe, who collected $15,000 from businesspeople at the private session. "I would do it every week if I could."
During the three days, Gore also telephoned local labor leaders, posed for photos with contributors of $2,500 to the campaign of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and invited California Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, the Democratic nominee in the gubernatorial contest, to ride in his limo.
The business of meeting and greeting influential community leaders is what Ron Kaufman dubs the "body politics."
"It isn't always about crowds," said Kaufman, who mapped George Bush's leap from vice president to president. "It's more about putting chits in the bank."
Just as Clinton operatives recruited inner-city mayors to help ward off a primary challenge from the left, Gore began "a very concerted effort to court urban constituencies" a few years ago, said Carter Eskew, a Democratic consultant close to the vice president at the time. Earlier this year, Gore developed a similar outreach program with the business community, hoping his contacts in the technology world might help him build bridges to corporate leaders traditionally in sync with the GOP.
"The vice president has been very, very good at effectively keeping in touch with the important elements of the Democratic Party," said attorney Bill Wardlaw, an influential Clinton supporter in California. "All I expect to see between now and November is more of the same."
If done properly, Gore's efforts on behalf of other candidates this year should enable him to burnish his own campaign skills and elevate issues that suit his political purposes.
"It is no coincidence that we do school events on almost every trip," said a top Gore adviser, noting the polls show education is uppermost on voters' minds.
But if Gore enters the 2000 contest with significant advantages, including access to money, high name identification and the vast resources of the White House, he also must manage the added scrutiny and high expectations that come with the job.
Already there is sniping that Gore is promoting himself more aggressively than other Democrats on the ballot this year. Others observe that with the exception of Peter Knight, few people in the Gore orbit have run a national campaign. And Gore has yet to resolve simmering debates about who is calling the shots. Among the players are former staff members such as Roy Neel and Jack Quinn; consultants such as Robert Squier and Michael Whouley; friends such as former House member Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.); and current political aides Daniels, Ronald A. Klain and Monica M. Dixon.
As one White House strategist put it: "You do have, in a sense, a shakedown."
For now, Gore is willing to take those risks and reap the rewards. As he sat in the sun-dappled backyard of California investor Sim Farar, Gore basked in the admiring praise of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Hollywood stars such as Sally Field and Nancy Sinatra, and, most important, the very generous host.
"This vice president is doing the most phenomenal job I have ever seen in my 52 years on this planet," said Farar, who printed a mock newspaper trumpeting a Gore win in 2000. And to Gore: "You will have a lot of my friends' and my support 100 percent if you like, sir."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company