Vice President Gore, campaigning just across Manhattan from Texas Gov. George W. Bush, lashed out at the Republican front-runner's policies on education and guns today, while letting his New York surrogates blast Democratic rival Bill Bradley as a quitter who doesn't deserve the party's presidential nomination.
Gore, on the day before he opens his new campaign headquarters in Tennessee, brought his reinvigorated campaign to New York, a crucial early primary state where new polls show him running no better than even with Bradley and in a statistical tie with Bush in a hypothetical general election match-up.
The vice president did get a boost today, winning the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country, representing 1 million teachers. The endorsement is a prelude to a larger battle for the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. Gore hopes to win that endorsement next week, but Bradley is attempting to head it off.
Gore alluded to Bradley's growing threat at a breakfast in upstate New York, telling an audience of county leaders and elected officials who have endorsed his candidacy, "We've got a fight on our hands and we've got a big challenge we've got to take on together."
If some of Gore's attacks were not new, the vice president was hoping that the changes he is making to his own campaign will refocus public attention on his message and his candidacy, rather than on the problems that have plagued him and his campaign operation.
Everywhere he has gone this week, he has sounded a note of urgency about the battle ahead--one that not only includes a possible race against Bush in the general election but now increasingly a hard-fought contest for the Democratic nomination.
Bush was in New York to deliver a speech about education, and Gore used a luncheon fundraiser for female donors to belittle Bush's plan as one that would threaten the viability of public education. Noting that Texas ranks "45th out of all 50 states in SAT scores," Gore said Bush's proposal would provide a "tiny, little down payment" on private school tuition to parents of disadvantaged children in failing schools. He said that in many poor neighborhoods, "public schools would be destroyed" and surrounding schools would become even more crowded.
On guns, the vice president renewed his criticism of the governor for signing legislation that allows Texans to carry concealed weapons and another bill that prohibits local governments from suing gun manufacturers. Gore called that "unbelievable and unacceptable."
He also deplored Bush's reaction to the recent shooting in a Texas church, suggesting that Bush was naive to blame a wave of evil sweeping the country. "Evil has always been with us," Gore said. "But now we have a wave of guns and I think we ought to take those evil guns out of the hands of the evildoers."
Gore was also thinking about Bradley today, and he continued to pressure his rival to accept his challenge to additional debates and criticized Bradley's support for then-President Ronald Reagan's spending cuts in 1981.
But his surrogates delivered the harshest criticisms of the former New Jersey senator and New York Knicks basketball star. During the breakfast rally in upstate New York, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, state Comptroller H. Carl McCall and other party officials ripped Bradley for walking away from politics after Republicans captured the House and Senate in 1994.
Spitzer described Bradley and Gore as two basketball players at halftime in a hard-fought game. Bradley, he said, was the player who complained, "I'm quitting. . . . I'm tired. . . . I don't want to fight." Gore, he said, "stayed on the floor" to finish the game. "Now who do you want as captain?" Spitzer said. "The guy who quit, who ran, who didn't know how to fight, or Al Gore?"
Gore's challenge in New York was underscored by a new Quinnipiac College poll that showed Bradley running better than Gore against Bush. In general election tests, Bradley led Bush 51 percent to 32 percent, while Gore held a narrower 43 percent to 41 percent lead over the GOP front-runner. That poll and the Marist College poll showed Gore and Bradley running about even for the Democratic nomination.
Before Gore spoke this morning, Rockland County Democratic Chairman Paul Adler predicted the changes in Gore's campaign would pay dividends but acknowledged that so far, "I don't think it's clicked yet." Still, Gore got good reviews from supporters who saw him today. Catherine Abate, who ran for New York attorney general, said Gore had put "inspiration and passion" together with his experience and knowledge of issues. "Now he has the entire package," she said.
CAPTION: Vice President Gore speaks to New York state Democratic leaders during a breakfast in Gallatin, N.Y.