In his newly adopted role as "underdog" for the Democratic presidential nomination, Vice President Gore is preparing to assault rival Bill Bradley as a classic politician who flip-flops on the issues and reinvents himself each election season.
Suddenly confronted with a serious primary fight, the Gore team says Bradley--from his fundamental claim of being a political "outsider" to his reversals on education and farm policy--is ripe for attack.
They dismiss the notion that the 18-year senator is any less a Washington politician than Gore, assert they will win over organized labor and denigrate Bradley's recent health care proposal as a $65 billion-a-year monster.
"If your message is, 'I'm not political and I'm authentic and I'm an outsider and I have big ideas,' well then, that's the bar you set for yourself and you have to live up to it," said one Gore campaign official. "When you've got an 18-year record, that obviously makes some of those things difficult to live up to."
But in making such claims, Gore's strategists are also acknowledging that they consistently miscalculated the 2000 presidential contest. Just two weeks ago, one of his top fund-raisers predicted that Bradley's finance operation would sputter. Instead, Bradley beat Gore in the money hunt of the past three months and has more money in the bank than the vice president.
Now Gore is rewriting his campaign plan, abandoning any notion that he could ignore Bradley in the vain hope of leaping straight to a general election contest with Republican Gov. George W. Bush.
"For a long time this campaign rightfully--and then wrongfully--thought the right strategy was to engage Bush," said one key Gore strategist. "Now we have to acknowledge reality. The reality is, Bill Bradley is ahead in New Hampshire, even in New York, and he's closed the race."
Still, Gore did issue a statement yesterday taking a backhanded swipe at Bush for failing to take on Patrick J. Buchanan's views on World War II. Calling on all GOP leaders to repudiate Buchanan's writings on the U.S. response to Hitler, Gore said: "I do not understand the confusion at the highest levels of the Republican Party when they are asked to stand up for such basic principles."
On Wednesday, Gore announced that he was shaking up his operation and moving it to Nashville. In reality the campaign makeover has been in the works for a few weeks--when Bradley began to surge in New Hampshire polls--starting with a revamped stump speech that touches on more of Gore's biography and for the first time details the "disillusionment" he felt after serving in Vietnam and witnessing Watergate.
"I thought politics was the absolute last thing I would ever do with my life," he now tells voters.
With the help of wordsmith Bob Shrum and his longtime media adviser Carter Eskew, Gore also relies more on imagery--from running a marathon with his daughters to hiking a mountain with his son--to describe his quest for the presidency.
But the most significant shift in the Gore camp is the fierce focus on Bradley.
Gore's team criticizes Bradley for supporting a pilot project for school vouchers while in the Senate but now opposing the controversial approach, and they mock Bradley's newfound love of ethanol supports for Midwest farmers.
"The central paradox of his campaign is that he's running as a non-politician but doing it in a very political way," said one Gore aide who rattled off Bradley flip-flops.
Hinting that Bradley is a quitter who abandoned politics once before, Gore recently told members of the Democratic National Committee, "For almost 25 years I have been" fighting for party principles.
And with a little help from Bradley himself, the vice president's aides believe they can paint the former New Jersey senator in a far left corner.
"Gore is just more in tune with the country; he has a better idea of government and how it works and how it helps people," said policy adviser Elaine Kamarck. Bradley's proposal to make affordable health care available to all Americans "shows Gore has a much more realistic sense of how you have to balance things."
Gore's challenge to debate Bradley a "bunch of times" on subjects such as education, health care, the environment and crime are an attempt to play to the vice president's strengths, aides say. Yesterday, campaign chairman Tony Coelho began to assemble a possible debate prep team that is likely to include former aides Ron Klain and Jack Quinn. Gore also agreed to attend a joint town hall forum in New Hampshire with Bradley on Oct. 27.
"Phase one was Al Gore, the presumptive president," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo said yesterday. "Phase two was, 'We don't want a presumptive president; we want a vigorous debate.' Phase three will be Al Gore versus Bill Bradley and Al Gore wins on the merits."