Vice President Gore's campaign is racing to secure as many financial and political commitments as possible in the critical primary state of New York before Hurricane Hillary sweeps across the landscape.
Faced with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's headline-grabbing Senate bid, the near-native son status of Democratic rival Bill Bradley and the ghost of Gore's abysmal 1988 primary finish in the state, the vice president finds himself battling unusually long odds in the March 7 primary.
"Hillary is larger than life," said Democratic consultant Hank Scheinkopf. "The smart strategy is to lock down everything humanly possible because ultimately people will only pay attention to Hillary."
Bradley's advisers and several neutral analysts say Gore is playing catch-up in a state he grossly misread the last time he ran for president.
"The big problem Gore has in relation to the first lady's candidacy and Bradley's is that they initially reached out to local officials in an efficient, effective way," said one Democratic Party leader. "There were a number of missteps early in the Gore campaign that they're trying to overcome."
In 1988, then-Sen. Gore alienated black and Jewish voters in New York, and his 10 percent finish in the primary ended his presidential prospects.
Bradley, on the other hand, played basketball for the New York Knicks for 10 years, represented neighboring New Jersey in the Senate for 18 years and has deep ties to Wall Street.
In a Quinnipiac College poll earlier this month, Bradley closed the Democratic primary gap to 9 percentage points. Perhaps more significantly, he led Republican George W. Bush by 7 percentage points, whereas Gore led the Texas governor by just 2 points.
"Vice President Gore has been locked in a [statistical] tie with Bush, . . . and that's not a good place for a Democratic presidential candidate to be," said Maurice Carroll, director of the college's polling institute.
Although New York historically has voted Democratic in presidential elections, the state's March 7 primary is especially important because of its early slot on the nominating calendar and because if Bradley's insurgent bid is to catch on, he must perform well there.
Already, the Gore campaign is trying to lower expectations for the vice president in New York, pointing to Bradley's connections to the state.
"He has a home-court advantage," Gore campaign chairman Tony Coelho said of Bradley. "Despite that, the vice president is taking New York seriously; he has organized hard and we are seeing real results."
One of Gore's key field organizers set the bar even higher for their rival: "If New York isn't Bradley's base, what is? Gore does not have to win New York; Bradley does have to."
Responding to criticism that the campaign was late in turning its attention to New York, Gore's advisers say they had to build organizations first in Iowa and New Hampshire, which kick off the nominating season. The Gore strategy now is to return to old-fashioned party politicking with a corporate twist. In recent weeks, the vice president, wife Tipper and Coelho have made the pilgrimage to New York to woo fund-raisers, county chairmen and leaders of key constituencies such as labor, gays and Hispanics.
Their personal intervention is beginning to pay dividends: Westchester County Democratic Chairman David Alpert, after flirting with a Bradley endorsement and meeting with Gore, announced in a session Tuesday with Coelho and other county chairmen that he is supporting the vice president. Tipper Gore, meanwhile, secured the backing of more than a dozen county chairmen in New York's Democratic Rural Conference.
Alpert said the Gore camp won him over with a two-pronged appeal: campaign help in upcoming local elections and a grasp of regional issues. "I learned that Tony Coelho knows how to milk a cow," he said, describing Coelho's command of upstate farm concerns.
The New York-based United Federation of Teachers has endorsed Gore, and the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees is helping the vice president.
And just as Bill Clinton did in 1992, Gore hopes to surround himself with a respectable, albeit small, contingent of business leaders. In New York, investment banker Steven Rattner, former treasury secretary Robert Rubin and others are planning a Gore fund-raiser with business leaders by October.
"We're not going to have a majority of them; this community is Republican and Bush is reasonably popular," said one Gore executive. "We need to show we're not pariahs."
Shortly after Labor Day, Gore 2000 will open its state office, run by Eric Eve, the son of state Assemblyman Arthur Eve. By mid-month, campaign workers will start collecting signatures to get Gore on the state ballot, and Gore will make at least two trips to New York by October, aides say.
In New York, at least, the Bradley camp can match Gore inside move for inside move. It also will open a state office in early September and will have started the tedious process of slating delegates for the national nominating convention. Like Tipper Gore, Ernestine Bradley was upstate recently and collected a handful of endorsements for her husband, including Schenectedy County Chairman Chris Gardner and former Albany mayor Tom Whelan. Bradley returns to the state Monday with an appearance in Harlem.
"Since April, we have been trying to build our own organization in every congressional district in the state," said Bradley's New York coordinator, Michael DelGiudice. "Gore has been running for president for 10 years and he's touched all the regular party bases, but in New York state that's not enough."
DelGiudice was chief of staff to former governor Mario M. Cuomo and ran Michael S. Dukakis's victorious New York primary effort in 1988. Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser worked for several years for Sen. Charles E. Schumer. Manhattan city council member Ronnie Eldridge is working for Bradley, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is expected to endorse his former colleague.
Publicly, Gore officials argue that a Senate race by Hillary Clinton will help Gore bring out Democratic voters. And they stress that they will finish their fund-raising before she comes in to "vacuum up" contributions. But observers say the Senate race will certainly take some of the excitement out of the presidential contest and will pose complications for a vice president trying so hard to step out of the Clinton shadow.
"He is trying to distance himself from one Clinton while running in the state with another," said Marist Institute pollster Lee Miringhoff. "New York becomes dicey for him."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.