Gore Urges Democrats to 'Stand With Me'
By Ceci Connolly
On the economy, education, civil rights, health care and crime, Gore pledged that if he is elected president next year he will carry on the mission of his partner, the president. "I ask you to stand with me and move forward, not backward," Gore said. "Stand with me and we will create a 21st-century America that is the brightest time our nation has ever seen."
The 30-minute address to a friendly audience of Democratic National Committee members was part of Gore's effort to reintroduce himself to voters and clarify some of the less-than-flattering perceptions that have stemmed in large measure from his own rhetorical missteps.
High on the agenda was putting to rest the "controversy," as Gore put it, over his claim that he helped create the Internet.
"The truth is, I was very tired when I made that comment, because I had been up very late the night before inventing the camcorder," he said to laughter.
Earlier in the morning, longtime aide Peter Knight joined in the damage control effort telling a caucus of Democratic delegates that the vice president played a key role in broadening access to high-speed communications networks. Campaign manager Craig Smith, meanwhile, told delegates to discount early polls suggesting Gore trails at least two Republican contenders, Texas Gov. George Bush and Elizabeth Dole.
But the hullabaloo over the Internet -- from Gore's inflated claim to his slowness to tamp out the publicity brush fire -- revealed the challenges Gore faces as he shifts from dutiful understudy to candidate in his own right.
"The vice president and his campaign are trying to find a way to reintroduce himself to the voters, not as Bill Clinton's vice president but as Al Gore," said Joseph Keefe, a DNC member and top Gore ally in New Hampshire. "They may have misfired on a few things. The press will make some hay, but it's overblown."
But critics say the latest Gore gaffe fit a pattern of personal puffery. Remember, they noted, in 1997 when Gore suggested he and wife Tipper were the models for Erich Segal's teary "Love Story"? And last week, Gore was lampooned for his gauzy recollections of days on the family's Tennessee farm where he chopped wood, slopped hogs and took "up hay all day long in the hot sun."
In a new regular feature dubbed "The World According to Gore," the Republican National Committee contrasted Gore's recent down-home tales with his Washington childhood spent at St. Albans prep school. "Shoveling it?" the opposition asked.
Despite Gore's two decades in public office, polls show the vice president is not well-known. Indeed, it was President Clinton, in his news conference Friday, who succinctly articulated the Gore biography that the vice president and his team have had trouble getting out.
"I think it's important that the American people know more about the vice president's background," Clinton said in a lengthy summary of Gore's resume. "I think it's important that he served in the Congress, that he served in the Senate, that before that he was a member of your profession, he was a journalist, and served in the armed forces in Vietnam. I think it's important, also, that they know that he was a principal architect of the major economic and other policies of this administration."
The Gore team spent much of the three-day party gathering on some old-fashioned, one-on-one politics. On Friday morning, the vice president hosted a breakfast for about 40 of his most ardent DNC supporters. That afternoon, he summoned small groups to a suite in the Hyatt Regency for more personal lobbying, before all 300 DNC members attended a party on the lawn of the White House. In private meetings as well as speeches, Gore is attaching himself to the successes of the Clinton-Gore administration, but also trying to distinguish himself as more than the No. 2 guy.
Smith and other aides distributed index cards for activists to pledge their early support, while loyalists such as Elaine Kamarck watched out for Gore's interests in rules committee deliberations.
Former senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), through his wife and a handful of advisers, also made contact with this group of influential Democrats. They quietly fanned anxiety in some Democratic corners that Gore's low poll numbers reflect a combination of Clinton's baggage and the vice president's often uninspiring stump style. One DNC member friendly with Bradley said Gore must answer doubts about his "electability." Others said they worried about the Clinton-scandal baggage hurting Gore.
But the Bradley effort was no match for the vice president's. No fewer than a dozen Gore advisers circulated among the delegates and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo spoke on Gore's behalf at early morning meetings. Volunteers, many of them administration staffers, distributed Gore 2000 signs and helped television crews get favorable shots of Gore.
And Gore's staff made a point of introducing reporters to Judith Hope, the chairwoman of the New York State Democratic Party, who 10 days ago noted that Democratic vice presidents do not have a strong history of winning the White House. Today, she was more upbeat: "When he moves to center stage, instead of in the wings, then you'll see his numbers quickly accelerate."
In his speech, Gore basked in the economic glories of the Clinton administration, yet acknowledged life is not as good for women (paid 75 cents for every $1 earned by men) and minorities such as the black man dragged to death in Jasper, Tex., and the gay man beaten to death in Laramie, Wyo.
As he heads off to Iowa on Monday and New Hampshire at the end of the week, Gore offered this central campaign theme: "I want to build a nation that connects the wisdom and values that we learned from those who went before us and from our own hard-won experience to the extraordinary opportunities that we all want for our children and grandchildren."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company