The problem with pandering, as Vice President Gore is fast learning, is that once you start, it's hard to kick the habit. Promise the auto workers something to win their vote, and soon you'll be making concessions to the Sierra Club. Throw the left-handed oboists a bone, and before you know it, you'll have Swedish-American vegetarians knocking on your door.

It became apparent last week that Gore is sliding down this slippery slope. On Monday, Gore declared that he wanted to abandon the Clinton administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military--one more attempt to secure a crucial constituency before the New York and California primaries on March 7. Leaving aside the merits of Gore's position--the policy, by most measures, hasn't worked--his stance is politically reckless and easy for Republicans to exploit in the general election. Gore's pollsters objected to the move, and no wonder: When Bill Clinton tackled this subject soon after his election in 1992, the resulting backlash sent the president into a skid that took three years to reverse.

Why would Gore open this can of worms?

Before anybody could figure out that one, Gore confounded his supporters again with a follow-up pander. On Tuesday, Gore broke with the Clinton administration to recommend "flexibility" in the use of marijuana as a pain reliever. A hit with the drug-legalization crowd, Gore's new position goes even further than that of his more liberal Democratic challenger, Bill Bradley.

By Wednesday, you could hear the groans coming out of the Capitol Hill offices of the Democratic Leadership Council, the brain trust for the moderate "New Democrat" movement that carried Clinton to the White House. The New Democrats thought they had put together a winning formula: Toss out the old interest-group politics and tout centrist policies that appeal to the vast suburban middle class that now dominates the electorate. It worked for Clinton in '92 and '96. This time, Republican George W. Bush has anticipated the strategy; the Texas governor has adopted many of the New Democrats' ideas. He's defying the interest groups of the right by flatly refusing, for example, to commit himself to naming a running mate or a Supreme Court justice who is opposed to abortion.

To the moderates' dismay, Gore, once the centrist heir to the New Democratic movement, seems to be morphing into Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis before their very eyes. Bradley, it might be argued, has no choice but to paint himself as liberal in order to mount an insurgent challenge to the more powerful Gore. What's Gore's excuse for responding in kind? Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager and a former acolyte of Jesse Jackson, spelled it out a month ago in her now-famous remarks to Post political reporter Ceci Connolly: "The four pillars of the Democratic Party are African Americans, labor, women, and what I call other ethnic minorities." She then listed other "emerging constituencies": environmentalists, gays and the disabled.

The DLC's weekly newsletter protested such logic, equating it with "the failed Democratic presidential campaigns of the 1980s." Sen. Joseph Lieberman, DLC chairman and a Gore supporter, called the criticism a "warning sign" for Gore to return to the suburban middle class. The Clinton White House has voiced similar worries.

Yet Gore's panderama continues. Earlier in the fall, he objected to the Clinton deal with congressional Republicans that cleared the way for the United States to pay its withheld U.N. dues, worried that he would lose women's support because of the agreement's ban on U.S. money to international groups that advocate abortion rights. Gore regularly delivers a full-throated defense of affirmative action, aggravating Democratic moderates seeking new solutions. Rarely a day goes by when Gore doesn't attack Bradley's health care plan (a proposal that the DLC gave favorable reviews) as an assault on the poor, the disabled and minorities. And even before his "don't ask, don't tell" declaration, Gore had sought to secure support from gay voters by announcing his opposition to a California initiative against gay marriage. Earlier, Gore had been noncommittal, but he got religion when he heard that Bradley was about to state his opposition.

Gore's behavior is worrying for the Democrats. As the Republicans choose between two attractive moderates, John McCain and Bush, the two Democrats--both traditionally centrists--act as if they are campaigning for the Cambridge city council. Some blame Tony Coelho, Gore's campaign chairman, who, as the Democratic whip in the House, was an expert at playing interest-group politics. Now, by pursuing a similar strategy for Gore, Coelho risks winning the Democratic nomination but dooming Gore in the general election by handing suburban, middle-class voters to the Republicans. That's how Anita Dunn, a top Bradley adviser, interprets Gore's strategy: "He has sacrificed his New Democratic credentials for the constituency politics he needs to get the nomination."

The New Democrats aren't willing to abandon the vice president just yet. He is, after all, a founding member of the DLC. "I'm inclined to give him a break" because he's in a fight for the nomination, says Lieberman. There are some hopeful signs that Gore has begun to heed the advice of his moderate supporters. He's been focusing more on the Clinton administration's accomplishments, taking credit for the booming economy. There is also reason to believe he will soon be talking more about the impressive success of welfare reform, which Bradley opposed. And Gore continues to touch on New Democratic issues. He hasn't wavered on free trade or a strong military, and his recent speech on fatherhood, like earlier speeches on civic partnerships and livability, comes straight from the DLC's playbook.

At the same time, however, he has turned his back on some DLC notions that draw stiff opposition from various interest groups. For example, he has ridiculed Bradley for once entertaining the concept of education vouchers--an idea favored by many New Democrats, but which is anathema to the major teachers' unions. And the vice president has attacked Bradley for suggesting that an older Social Security retirement age might be discussed as part of entitlement reform--a proposal that causes palpitations in the senior citizen lobby.

In Gore's defense, there is ample evidence that the special-interest strategy still works in Democratic primaries. The vice president, after slipping behind Bradley in the New Hampshire polls, is again competitive. And a New York poll by Quinnipiac College, released last week, found Gore had moved ahead of Bradley in that state, 42 percent to 39 percent, compared with a November survey that had Bradley ahead, 47 percent to 38 percent. Gore can also argue that Bradley's surge left him little choice. Earlier in the campaign, Gore ignored Bradley and aimed for the New Democratic center--only to find that Bradley had mounted a serious challenge by appealing to voters on the left.

While Gore is now putting up a fight for the liberal interest groups, he isn't going as far as his rival in many cases. The Advocate, a national gay magazine, noted in October that Bradley "took a position to the left of . . . Barney Frank" (the openly gay Massachusetts congressman) and quoted Bradley as suggesting that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 be rewritten to include gays. Bradley has even attacked Gore, author of a best-selling book on saving the environment, for not being enough of an environmentalist, blasting the administration for renewing undeveloped offshore oil leases.

Such attacks from the left would help Gore in a general election--but only if he resists fighting Bradley for every interest group. After Gore announced his opposition to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, the Bradley campaign accused Gore of being a Johnny-come-lately to the issue--to which Gore proudly boasted that he has always held this unpopular opinion. The Gore campaign sent out a two-page fact sheet that painstakingly outlined how "in the early days of the Clinton-Gore administration, Vice President Al Gore was a forceful voice in support of lifting the ban on gays in the military." The campaign substantiated this with quotes from six publications, going back to the early days of Clinton's first term.

Let's accept that Gore opposed the policy in '93. Let's also accept that it's a matter of principle, not politics. Still, why would he wait until now to say so, right after Hillary Clinton did the same thing, after Bradley had announced his views, and knowing that the issue had caused Clinton such trouble in '93? Gore tied it to a recent well-publicized conviction in the gruesome murder of a gay soldier, Pfc. Barry Winchell, who was beaten to death with a baseball bat while he slept. Fair enough. But even some of Gore's advisers said they didn't see the point in Gore making such a statement right now. "There's risk, and there's not a lot of reward," says one.

Gore still has time to return from the "four pillars" to his New Democratic instincts. Gore's advisers, stung by the moderates' criticism, have been calling some top Democratic centrists to reassure them that, while the vice president remains committed to the cause, he must balance it with other issues. But such calls compound the New Democrats' worries. The phone calls suggest that the Gore campaign is treating the moderates as if they were just another constituency group demanding a seat at the table. Gore, Coelho and Brazile must realize that the middle class isn't an interest group. It's the American electorate.

Dana Milbank, a senior editor at the New Republic, is covering the 2000 presidential campaign.