Vice President Al Gore has turned the corner in his quest for the Democratic nomination. He remains in a tough fight with former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, but the past week has seen Gore seize the initiative and the advantage over his somewhat flustered opponent.
The shift came out of several ingredients--signs of battle fatigue in Bradley, a pair of strong debate performances by Gore and increasing indications that the vice president may win big in the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses. But the most important factor is that Gore finally seems to have solved his biggest strategic problem: identifying himself with the economic successes of the Clinton administration without defending the president's indefensible personal behavior.
Bradley took what may well prove to be his best shot at Gore in a scripted windup to last week's debate at the University of New Hampshire. He said that Gore's handicap is that he has a "Washington bunker" mentality. "I can understand why you're in a bunker. There was Gingrich . . . the fund-raising scandals . . . the impeachment problem. . . . I understand that. . . . But the Democratic Party shouldn't be in the Washington bunker with you."
That is as close as someone competing for Democratic votes can safely come to saying that the political problems left behind by Clinton--the policy blunders that led to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, the campaign finance excesses of 1996 and the disgrace with the White House intern--could sink the Democrats in November if Clinton's partner is the nominee. It was a clear warning that Democrats better find a fresh face.
But Gore did not crack. Instead, he replied that he never condoned Clinton's conduct but "stayed and fought against the Gingrich Congress" and against the "thoroughly disproportionate penalty" Republicans tried to impose by impeaching and removing Clinton from office.
In doing this, Gore identified himself with what is clearly the overwhelming sentiment among Democratic partisans in Iowa and New Hampshire. And in Des Moines on Saturday, he went further onto the offensive. "I want to tell you," he said to Bradley, "what we were doing in that Washington bunker. We've created 20 million new jobs, cut the welfare rolls in half, passed the toughest gun control in a generation and created the strongest economy in the history of the United States of America."
That opening salvo put Bradley on the defensive. And that is not the only front on which Gore has gained the upper hand. Campaign finance reform has been one of Bradley's signature issues for the New Hampshire primary--reinforced by the parallel message from Republican contender John McCain. But Gore has trumped him by challenging Bradley to join him in dropping the 30-second TV ads that consume most of the campaign budget and instead debating twice a week until New Hampshire votes on Feb. 1.
Bradley has dismissed it as "a ploy," but Gore has persisted, and both private polls and a focus group of Democrats The Washington Post conducted here last week found the idea has real appeal to voters. Reformer Bradley has been maneuvered by Gore into defending the onslaught of 30-second spots that voters despise.
On Bradley's other signal issue, health care, Gore may also be gaining ground. Few voters appear to understand the fundamental differences between the candidates' proposals, but Gore is hammering home the demagogic message that Bradley would "abolish Medicaid" and jeopardize Medicare by failing to set aside funds for its future needs. The endorsement Gore gained last week from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Mr. Health Care to most Democrats, lends credibility to his claims.
In Iowa, where Gore carries a double-digit lead into the final two weeks before the caucuses, Bradley is clearly uncomfortable defending past votes against emergency farm aid and crop subsidies. A big Gore win in Iowa would resonate here and allow the vice president to urge undecided New Hampshire voters to end the Democratic civil war, which they dislike, and let him get ready to take on the Republicans.
The race remains competitive, in part because Gore is still a stiff and stilted campaigner, closer to Steve Forbes than to Clinton in the warmth of his personality. And he too often goes overboard, in verbiage or in policy, as witness his blunder last week in endorsing a "litmus test" for senior military commanders on welcoming homosexuals into the armed services.
Many Democrats here are supporting Bradley because they don't think Gore can win in November. But the more those Democrats see of McCain and George W. Bush, the more they begin to think either Democrat might hold the White House--which makes it easier for them to help the guy who's been working there for seven years.