More than a month after his splashy campaign announcement tour and staff reshuffling, Vice President Gore's political operation is still struggling for traction, overshadowed by the Republican front-runner and mired in internecine conflicts, according to the assessment of a wide array of Democrats in and out of the campaign.
Although the Gore team had intended to use the summer months to reintroduce the vice president to voters, it is now developing a strategy to shift the focus onto Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The plan, according to several Gore strategists, is to ignore Democrat Bill Bradley and move straight to a general election contest pitting "Mr. Megabucks" (Bush) against "Mr. Message" (Gore).
But based on the performance of the campaign to date and its inability to stem its own internal strife, even many of Gore's allies question whether his team can successfully execute the latest plan.
Despite bringing in former House majority whip Tony Coelho to impose discipline on the warring factions, the feuds have grown increasingly public. Even with renewed efforts to control costs and woo prominent fund-raisers, Gore's financial situation is tight. And for all the talk about him loosening up and displaying a more human side, the vice president remains a cautious politician surrounded by high-priced Washington insiders.
"Tony's no fool; he understands there's been a lack of focus, a lack of message and a lack of organizational structure," said Garry South, a top strategist to California Gov. Gray Davis (D). "He's trying to solve all three of those problems."
Democratic officials and consultants in a half-dozen states said in interviews that rather than capitalizing on the advantages of incumbency, Gore seems encumbered by them, unable to put forth the sort of confident, well-oiled national machine needed to seize control of the debate. Some supporters fear Gore is running an "imperial" campaign.
"He needs to get out and mix," said attorney Wylie Aitken, head of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County in California. During a recent meeting, he urged Gore to spend more time meeting with voters. "I indicated to him that Bradley made a very impressive appearance" at a local breakfast recently. "People have to know Gore is out there as a candidate and it's not just about raising money."
The Gore team, however, says it is on track, meeting its goals.
"We are only into the second quarter; we have 16 months before we vote in November 2000," said adviser Peter Knight. "Summer is the time that you till the soil, and you begin harvesting down the road."
In mid-May, Gore reached outside his inner circle and named Coelho as campaign chairman. Some questioned the choice, noting that Coelho, long associated with aggressive fund-raising tactics, left Congress in 1989 under an ethical cloud.
Coelho's defenders say he has thrown himself into the unpaid job, working round-the-clock, coast-to-coast. In recent weeks, he has met with fund-raisers, elected officials and Democratic consultants across the country, attempting to reassure them that he is addressing the problems.
"I've had the sense of late that the organization has increased energy and focus," California fund-raiser Andy Spahn said after meeting with Coelho.
While Gore is assiduously ignoring Bradley, figuring that any attention given to his Democratic rival will merely elevate him, the vice president and his allies are gunning for Bush -- and counting on other Republicans to lend a hand. After conducting focus groups, Gore's strategists believe they can poke holes in Bush's "compassionate conservatism."
"It's Clintonesque," said one Gore loyalist who has studied the data. "It reeks of politics; it's too cute by half."
Aides are looking for the right moment in coming days for Gore to attack Bush directly. The campaign is also attempting to use Bush's most obvious asset -- money -- to scare up support, arguing in telephone solicitations that cash
is desperately needed to counteract the Texan's $37 million war chest.
"The best primary strategy is a general election strategy," said one top campaign official. "We want to show we're the strongest possible candidate against George Bush and we have the best message."
Under Coelho, the Gore team has stepped up its field operation in key states and has started honing its message. After failing to recruit some bigger names, the campaign is signing up Kathy Bowler, outgoing executive director of the California Democratic Party, and is on the verge of hiring a New York state director. Three more state offices will open soon.
To contrast himself with Bradley and Bush, Gore is offering himself as an issues-focused candidate. Already, he has given meaty speeches on crime, education and broadening the public role of religious organizations. An economic speech is in the works.
Yet Coelho's short tenure has had its share of setbacks and controversy -- some self-inflicted, and others out of the Gore campaign's control. Last week, a Gore canoe trip down the scenic Connecticut River in New Hampshire led to embarrassing reports that a local utility company had pumped billions of gallons of water into the river to make the vice president's ride more smooth.
At the campaign, some staff members have been asked to sign documents pledging they will not speak to the press; others are watched on the road, their activities reported back to K Street headquarters.
"The uncertainty and insecurity and self-doubt have been very painful," said one of Gore's advisers, who noted it is not uncommon for staff members to decline assignments out of fear they will be blamed for failures.
Major fund-raisers are unenthusiastic; Gore's chief of staff has been weighing private-sector offers, and his stable of consultants divide their time between the campaign and more lucrative corporate clients. And the recent addition of message guru Carter Eskew has caused internal tension. Eskew and Gore's media adviser Robert Squier had not spoken in the seven years since their partnership broke up, and both have mused publicly about whether they can work together.
"Show me one person besides Tipper Gore who is devoted entirely to getting Al Gore elected president," said one exasperated Democrat.
Asked about the loyalty pledges his staff signs, campaign manager Craig Smith said the document is the same employment contract the Clinton campaign used in 1996. "The palace intrigue doesn't have much impact on real voters," he added. "On Election Day, voters ask themselves two questions: What is the candidate's vision of the future? And how do I fit in it?"
Still, the months of turbulence and internal dissension have taken a toll on the Gore team and have begun to raise doubts in broader Democratic circles.
"A lot of time's gone by since they told us this was a bump in the road," said one East Coast Democratic consultant who is reluctant to help the campaign. "This is more of a crater than a bump in the road."
An array of Democratic strategists interviewed last week were hard-pressed to point to a single strong week for Gore in the past six months. They note that while Bush has settled on the catchy slogan "compassionate conservatism," Gore has already tested -- and ditched -- "practical idealism," "stand by me" and "new horizon."
David Axelrod, a Chicago consultant who has informally advised Gore, said the campaign's strategy of rolling out a detailed-issues agenda is premature.
"I'm not sure who he is has been projected very well," Axelrod said. "The opportunity to show substance will come. This is the time when people want to familiarize themselves with you."
Former Clinton adviser Paul Begala, while "appalled" by the backbiting, said the more serious challenge for Gore is to keep pace with Bush.
He urged the Gore team to make a splash in early August when media coverage will otherwise be focused on Bush's performance at the Ames, Iowa, straw poll. "It's either going to be the coronation of King George or `Wow, we better take another look at this Gore guy,' " Begala said.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.