What's Al Gore thinking?

He oozes confidence even as his campaign flounders, but a high-level source says the veep is yelling and screaming behind the scenes.

By Jake Tapper

Published June 8, 2000 6:29PM (EDT)

As various Democrats -- including President Clinton -- think aloud about Vice President Al Gore's somewhat floundering campaign, one can't help but wonder what on earth the veep is thinking these days.

"First they had him delivering a negative message every day in reaction to each 'race to the middle' policy speech by [George W.] Bush," says a high-ranking Senate staffer who supports Gore. "It took him weeks to stop doing that. Why they ever started it is a mystery. What were they thinking? 'We got a guy with pretty high negatives here, let's make every message of the day Gore taking a whack at Bush'?"

The Senate staffer was heartened to hear news a few weeks ago that Gore was going to put on a friendlier face and take it easy on his attacks against Bush, while sharing more personal information about himself and making policy announcements about cancer-research funding and child care. And that seemed to go over well.

But on Wednesday, the Democratic National Committee unveiled new pro-Gore advertisements that are to be funded with at least $25 million, much of it soft money -- in an apparent violation of one of Gore's first general election promises, to refrain from using soft-money ads unless the Republican National Committee did so first. The Senate staffer calls this move "stupid."

"Right now the Gore campaign is trying to convince people that, 'No, really, Al Gore's a decent, principled human being,'" the Senate staffer says. "And they pay for that campaign by violating a principle that he enunciated with great ceremony about two months ago. [This] reinforces everybody's worst impressions of Gore as a politician that has no conviction other than his own ambition."

"I don't get it," says the Senate staffer. "They're smart guys over there; I can't explain it."

Sure, things have turned around somewhat -- both a Zogby poll from the end of May and a Newsweek poll from June 1-2 had Gore and Bush in a statistical dead heat.

But many Gore allies wonder if that's true -- and if so, how long is it going to last? In addition to the soft-money brouhaha, Wednesday also brought news, courtesy of Republicans on the House Government Reform Committee, that FBI Director Louis Freeh argued in December 1998 that there was "compelling evidence" to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Gore's role in the 1996 fundraising scandal.

News of the Freeh memo and Gore's broken soft-money promise is just the latest in a series of instances of bad luck and missteps the Gore operation has suffered since it wiped the floor with Sen. Bill Bradley on Super Tuesday, March 7. All of which have had the cumulative effect of prompting even close allies to wonder aloud just what the hell Gore is thinking. Some have become so frustrated they've taken their messages directly to newspapers -- New Jersey Sen. Bob Torricelli and New York Rep. Charlie Rangel voiced concerns to the New York Times on May 25.

"People are starting to ask, 'When does he get started? When does he get focused? How did Bush catch up? When does the show hit the road?'" Rangel said to the Times.

Many political experts agree. "In my gut, do I think Gore's going to win? I don't think so," says Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report.

Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway insists that all is well -- and if you don't believe him, he says, check out the other guy.

"Bush has been very defensive lately," Hattaway says. "Only [Tuesday] he was defensive about his Social Security plan, when Al Gore hasn't even breathed his name on the stump." (Gore hasn't mentioned Bush's name in public since May 26, as pointed out by the New York Times.)

Hattaway's conclusion: "Bush's poll numbers must be shaky."

It's tough to figure out what's really going on in the Gore camp, away from the spin of spokesmen. The veep has all but embargoed himself from the press. A call to Gore confidant and former New York congressman-cum lobbyist Tom Downey, in which this reporter explained his hope to get Gore's perspective on the election, was met by Downey's assistant with near-hysterical laughter. "Good luck with that!" she yukked.

At the same time that Gore buddies and campaign officials don't return calls to reporters, sources close to Gore acknowledge that he is concerned about his ability to get out his message. There are times, they say, when he sees one of his policy addresses go relatively uncovered while the press focuses on political strategy, tactics over substance. When Gore reads a front-page story in a major newspaper that gives what he feels is a glowing take on a Bush policy proposal that Gore feels is seriously flawed, is he happy about it? No, of course not.

But, according to a source close to the veep, "he rises above it," instead focusing on the "big picture."

"It's always better to take the long view," says the source. "And he's an expert at that -- not only as a candidate but as a leader. Reacting to every little nuance does not serve you well."

Several knowledgeable sources close to Gore paint a picture of the veep as a veteran with confidence that, in the end, everything will turn out fine. Bush's uniformly superior standing in the polls -- contrasted against the bad reviews for Gore's performance since March 7 -- do not, according to these sources, have the veep concerned. Gore's been down this road before, and there are two main reasons they cite for why the political temperature-taking of early June does not have him quaking.

First, Gore regards elections as cyclical and believes that things will turn around soon enough. Having held office since 1976 -- losing only one election, his ill-conceived 1988 presidential run -- Gore has been through enough of these to not worry about the polls four months out. Voters just aren't paying attention yet, Gore thinks. And when they finally do, he will win.

Second, Gore is positive he is the superior candidate with the right stands on the issues -- especially the ones that resonate with swing voters in swing states whose votes he and Bush will be fighting for. Gore believes that his position on the issues that matter most to these men and, especially, women -- child care, education, a prescription drug benefit for seniors and Social Security -- is right where it needs to be, while Bush's is a Texas mile away. When swing voters start making up their minds, they will see the platforms and plans laid out side by side -- and Gore's will be the one they pick.

But another high-ranking Democratic source calls this bullshit. Gore's not that removed from reality, the source says.

The veep has "been screaming and yelling a little bit at" his staff, says the source, who would know. "To say he's not worried just isn't true. He gets worked up. He's not incredibly happy with his staff right now."

Thus, the source says, a staff shake-up may be in the works. One of the speculated reasons for the need for such a drastic move is that the campaign still needs an enforcer. Campaign staffers "seem to be confident without having any reason to be," according to the source. "It's good to be upbeat, but there's also a need to have a Rahm [Emanuel] or a James [Carville] -- someone who recognizes when the campaign's in trouble" and is a tough taskmaster in the campaign, as Emanuel and Carville were for Clinton-Gore in '92.

One of the ways Gore hopes to fill this vacuum is by increasing the role of Tad Devine in the campaign. As he did during the primaries, Devine, a partner in the Democratic consulting firm Shrum, Devine and Donilon, has been spending more time at campaign headquarters in Nashville in the last few weeks, assuming more responsibility for the campaign's day-to-day operations.

"He's very good at making the trains run on time," one Gore aide says. With Devine serving that role, campaign manager Donna Brazile is spending her time conducting even more outreach to political organizations.

Some sources close to Gore offer glimmers of understanding that things right now aren't going so super. "I'll be concerned if we don't get our message out" at all between now and Nov. 7, says one. "If we allow them to wrap up their guy in a pretty little package and sell him to the American people, we don't deserve to win. But that won't happen."

Gore knows that he has a slight image problem. "Sure, we suffer a little bit from caricature," the source allows. "But in part that's colored by the nature of the vice presidency."

When a loyal vice president begins to assert himself as his own presidential candidate, "there's some awkwardness," the source says. Gore's perceived pandering to the Cuban-American community on Elian Gonzalez is one notable example. "He stood behind a lectern for seven years towing the administration line, and now he's establishing a dialogue with the public in his own right."

Gore has made similar attempts at reassurance.

"The process of communication that takes place in a campaign is not best analyzed on a daily or hourly basis," Gore said May 24 on the "Diane Rehm Show" on National Public Radio. "I think that the dialogue on complex issues often takes time. It takes time for facts to emerge, for judgments to sink in, for people to really come to a conclusion about how they feel about the candidates, about the positions on the issues and about where we're going in the future."

Political observer Cook says that Gore isn't "behind in the polls by much. He's within striking distance." And though he agrees swing voters have yet to make up their minds, he says that it's Bush who they'll be looking at this fall, not Gore. Based on polls and focus groups, Cook says that "swing voters like Bush, but they're not sure if he's bright enough, if he knows enough and if he has the right kind of experience."

"Bush's speech [at the Republican Convention] in Philadelphia and the debates are going to be really important" in the decision of these voters, Cook says, specifically "in terms of 'Is Bush heavy enough for the job?'... Because they'd like to vote for him. They think Gore's smarter, they think he knows more about the issues and they get a sense he understands their problems." But they don't particularly like him.

"Gore needs to get people to feel like they have a stake in this election," Cook says. "I don't think he'll ever convince them that he's a nicer guy. But he needs to get the message across that there's some reason why they'd be better off with him, that he's looking out for them ... that if Bush gets elected, bad things might happen."

So far, Gore has had trouble getting this message across.

Sources close to Gore say the veep feels he communicated very effectively during the primaries and needs to return to personal interaction with the public for his message to get out. After Super Tuesday, a campaign source assesses, "his appearances became more 'vice-presidential' -- speeches and stuff." But that's increasingly changing, says the campaign source, as Gore returns to open meetings and living rooms to let people see who he really is.

But is time on his side? Some think so. "I think my watch says the date is June 7," says a high-ranking House Democratic staffer. "I haven't heard anyone else [on the Hill] say that they're worried."

A Gore aide says that one reason for the vice president's eerie confidence is that, when it comes to campaign cash, he and Bush roughly have parity. According to the most recent Federal Election Commission campaign disclosures, Gore even had slightly more cash on hand than Bush -- $7,860,861 to the Republican's $7,818,637.

"Bush spent gobs of cash during the primary," the Gore aide says. "If you had told me a year ago that at this point we would have had about the same amount of hard money, and even more cash on hand, than Bush" -- who had raised, as of the May 20 filing, $82.6 million but spent $74.7 million -- "I would have said you were crazy." (Gore had raised $46.8 million and spent $38.9 million.)

But sources close to Gore say the veep's confidence isn't because of the money race so much as "his faith in the American political system -- as crazy and as painful as he sometimes finds it." Thus, the sources say, Gore is able to generally stay as focused as a laser.

When Gore first heard that a tenant on his Tennessee property was being evicted -- after making repeated requests for repairs to her home and referring to him as a "slumlord" to a Tennessee TV station -- "he was pretty matter of fact about" solving the problem, says one campaign source. "He said, 'Let's deal with it.'" Gore instructed aides to reverse the action of the property manager, phone the tenant, fix the problem. There was no whining about the media, no disgust with the nonsense of campaigns, those close to him say, just a determination to remove the glitch from the radar.

He's a pro, they say, and he doesn't take Bush's attacks personally -- something that they feel Bush does. When Bush recently spotted a member of the media wearing a T-shirt put out by the Democratic National Committee poking fun at Bush -- advertising Bush's "Bob Jones University Redemption Tour" -- Bush reportedly expressed irritation. Conversely, when a Los Angeles Times reporter showed the veep a GOP-made T-shirt attacking Gore for his "Gore-isms," the veep is said to have laughed.

Gore is said to see Bush's weaknesses, but he concentrates on his own campaign.

It may be spin. It sure sounds like it. But those close to Gore insist that, as one source says, "He doesn't really talk much about [Bush]. He's focused on his own race and what he has to do."

Still, skeptical Gore-backers wonder when Gore's going to wake up and truly turn things around. "Elections are never about the past," the Senate staffer says. "But that seems to be the campaign they're waging. "

Sources close to Gore, however, continue to insist that Gore has it all worked out.

"He has a real sense of what's going to happen," says one. "He has a very good sense of how this race is going to evolve, in spite of all the predictions. And also, to a degree, he's immune to it. I mean, you need to have self-confidence in your own capabilities when you do this. If you didn't and you read this stuff, how could you keep running?"

Concludes another, "I wouldn't be as comfortable if everyone was writing stories underestimating Bush instead of overestimating him. Gore will be in his groove and ready when the time comes. He's a clutch player."

Cook suggests another possible reason for Gore's confidence. "For eight years this guy has been attached to the hip to Lazarus," he says. "He's seen his pal Bill come back from the dead at least half a dozen times."

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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