Top aides to Vice President Gore met with Cabinet officials this week to urge them to schedule "official" events next spring that will enable the Democratic presidential candidate to travel the country at government expense at a time when his campaign bank account will be depleted.
Gore, engaged in an expensive battle with Bill Bradley, is fearful that even if he secures the Democratic nomination by late March, he will have virtually no money left for campaigning until he collects $63 million in federal election funds at the August convention.
His new plan, outlined in two meetings with Cabinet secretaries and their deputies, calls for Gore to fly coast-to-coast handing out federal grants, giving speeches and posing at photo opportunities--all paid for by the government, said three people who attended the sessions.
Gore's aides were quick to stress that some agencies have been eager to enlist him in marketing their programs and achievements, but other participants said it was made clear the vice president will need to use the apparatus of government to develop and promote ideas that boost his presidential prospects.
"We gave them an update on the campaign and discussed what kind of activities they could be engaged in," said Gore's chief of staff, Charles Burson, who participated in the Tuesday session. "We acknowledged there have been fewer opportunities lately to highlight their initiatives but we said they should keep sending the requests in."
The Gore strategy is common among incumbent officeholders and emulates President Clinton's approach during the 1996 campaign, when he used official announcements--from a tuition tax credit proposal to streamlining regulatory approval for anti-cancer drugs--to market himself to the electorate. What is unusual in Gore's case is how reliant he may be on this strategy because his financial picture is so bleak.
As of Sept. 30, Gore had raised $24.8 million and spent $14.5 million, leaving him with less cash than Bradley. The tough primary fight--and the ability of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP front-runner, to spend huge sums next spring--raises the prospect of Gore being at a severe financial disadvantage.
"We are not going to have a lot of [advertising] money left" by spring, said one top Gore fund-raiser. "That's the big advantage Bush will have."
But Gore will have the advantage of his office. Though federal election law does not allow him to explicitly ask for votes or raise money or in any way directly promote his candidacy while he is carrying out official duties, he can still tout administration proposals and accomplishments.
"These will be official events so he can't engage in campaign rhetoric," said one Gore aide. "They will be issue-oriented; to the extent he benefits from that, that's good."
Last week, Gore hosted Cabinet secretaries for a political strategy session at his residence. Participants said he told the group--many of them seasoned politicians in their own right--that he is eager to have them on the campaign trail spreading his message. He also attempted to assuage anxiety about excessive spending and chronic infighting on his political team by introducing new campaign manager Donna Brazile and touting her tight-fisted budget.
On Tuesday, Burson, deputy chief of staff Monica Dixon and policy adviser Morley Winograd met at the White House with about 10 members of the President's Management Council, a group of senior officials who oversee government operations. The session in the Ward Room touched on topics from retail politics in New Hampshire to why feminist author Naomi Wolf was paid $15,000 a month, participants said.
But the heart of the discussion was how Gore can make use of his office--and the federal bureaucracy--for political advantage without crossing any legal lines. In government lingo, the technique is called "deliverables," meaning goodies handed out by an official.
Two people in Tuesday's meeting said the departments of Agriculture, Education, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development would be most involved in the effort. But another official said almost any agency could provide a platform for Gore, whether it is law enforcement grants from the Justice Department or new loans from the Small Business Administration.
Campaign spokesman Chris Lehane said the vice president will continue to use every available, legal resource to run for the Oval Office. "Al Gore will have all the resources he needs to compete in the primary and beyond," Lehane said. "It should be no surprise that, once we get through the primary process in early spring, he would do many things with his official vice president hat on."
That means Gore will also look to the Democratic National Committee and state parties to fill the financial gap--by paying for issue advertising that aims to boost all Democratic candidates and for his travel costs when he raises money or rallies support at party events.
That process has begun in earnest. Last week Gore attended two fund-raisers for the DNC in California and Seattle. Yesterday, he hit three more in Boston and New York, and on Monday he will leave Iowa for a few hours to raise party money in Chicago.
CAPTION: Vice President Gore arrives in New York for some party fund-raising.