"Gore is in the right place"

Democratic strategist Tad Devine previews Al Gore's nomination speech and defends his candidate, who's been lagging behind George W. Bush in polls.

By Jake Tapper
Published August 18, 2000 6:17PM (EDT)

A few months ago, Democratic strategist Tad Devine was quietly shuffled from the outskirts Al Gore's campaign to its inner circle. The Gore campaign promoted Devine, a partner at Washington political consulting powerhouse Shrum, Devine and Donilon, from his position as a media consultant to the role of senior adviser.

Devine in many ways embodies the liberal-moderate friction that this week's Democratic National Convention has occasionally shown, having worked on the re-election races of notables from the party's left wing -- Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry and Ted Kennedy and Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski -- as well as conservative or "New "Democrats like North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's 1988 vice presidential race and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey's ill-fated 1992 presidential foray.

Devine, 45 and from Providence, R.I., also worked on races for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Colombian president Andreas Pastrana. But other than those brief international gigs, he is a long-time Democratic pol with an expertise in convention minutia, serving as the director of floor delegates for Gov. Mike Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, deputy director of delegates for Walter Mondale in 1984, and his first job in politics came as a delegate tracker for then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Salon caught up with Devine Thursday morning to hear what he thought Gore would say in his speech before the convention, and where he thinks the presidential race is headed.

What are we going to see tonight?

We're going to see him talk about himself, and his own life, and the things that have shaped him and his values. He's also going to make his case on issues -- he isn't going to shy away from issues. He'll explain why he supports certain policies. Bush alluded to a prescription drug benefit for people in need, but Gore will go out and explain why he's taken that stand, and what he will do to advance the cause. Voters want to understand plans and proposals, and he's looking forward to making that case.

But every time Vice President Gore or your campaign tries to spell out policy differences between your campaign and Gov. Bush's, he accuses Gore of waging a negative campaign, and being an attack politician. And that may be smart politics, since it hinders you guys from explaining the policy differences between your campaigns, which you need to do in order to win. So how do you spell out issue differences without falling into this Bush trap?

Well, I don't think Bush's convention speech was smart politics. His speech crossed the line; it was way too nasty, and it was a personal attack. And Gore's not going to do that at all. He's going to make his case on the issues alone. The latitude on that with voters is very wide. But their willingness to listen to personal attacks is very narrow. Our research indicated -- and this was backed up by others, like in that Washington Post focus group in Washington state -- that undecided swing voters left asking more questions about Bush than were answered. There didn't seem to be any "there" there for him, at least for them.

In his convention speeches in 1992 and 1996, Gore attempted to share a little bit about himself, telling stories about his son's car accident and his sister's death from lung cancer. And the speeches backfired; a lot of people thought Gore was exploiting his family's tragedy for political gain, and, of course, Gore said his sister's death led him to fight tobacco companies. When reporters checked out the claim, they learned that it wasn't until years after her death that he stopped growing tobacco on his Tennessee farm, and stopped taking political action committee checks from tobacco companies. How can he avoid that tonight while sharing stories about himself? Is this something you guys are being cautious about?

Frankly, I disagree with the assessment that everything he did in the conventions in 1992 and 1996 backfired. I mean, they won. And there was criticism of Gore in some circles, but Gore did well with voters. It wasn't until he started running for president that people started going after him. So as for the speeches he gave at the conventions "backfiring," there's no evidence of that in any polling I saw. So I disagree with the premise of the question.

In terms of telling stories, this time he's going to tell about himself. We've found that when this information is presented to voters, it's as if it's a revelation. They don't know a lot of facts about his life.

So just the fact that he'll be able to talk about his life and in some detail about policies and proposals, the speech will be a contrast with Bush. The presentation in Philadelphia was "Here I am, born the nominee of the party, driving around my ranch in a pickup with a dog." I think the reason they chose not to talk about Bush's biography or his record in Texas is that they recognize that those are vulnerabilities for their candidate. On the other hand , they're the strengths of our candidate. So Bush chose to take another course, and that didn't give anything for anyone to hang on to once the back and forth -- as inevitably happens -- comes.

There are a lot of naysayers out there who just don't think Gore will be able to pull off an election victory. It seems like he's had some problems finding his campaign's way since defeating Bill Bradley. As someone who was on the outside looking in just a few months ago, and who's now on the inside, what's your take on the campaign so far?

Well, obviously I think we're going to win the election. We're on the right track to do that, and the convention is a very important part of the story in which we begin to tell the voters about Al Gore, who's had a remarkable life and record. We're well positioned in the election, and I'm looking at the electoral terrain. On the fundamental issues of prosperity, keeping the economy going in the right direction, we're well positioned. On health care, the other side has nothing, while we've got a plan. On issue after issue, Gore is in the right place and Bush is in the wrong place.

You know, records are important to voters. And the Bush record in Texas is a huge problem for him, especially with the environment and health care. I mean, I can understand the skepticism -- a lot of the polls have supported Bush. But that support is thin.

How can you be so confident that it's thin? Of the hundreds of polls taken since both Bush and Gore clinched their respective party nominations, Gore has only lead in a few. On what do you base the assertion that Bush's support is thin?

If you look beneath the surface of the horse race into attributes and issues, and how voters feel about issues, Gore has tremendous strength. And that's the reason. People think Gore does better on issues. I think we're well situated. It's going to be a tight race, but Gore's going to win.

But even with some core Democratic groups, such as women voters, Gore's been behind Bush in the polls.

Well, we've already begun to break out from that, in the course on this convention. This is all simply a question of people getting to know him and getting to know his story, which they'll relate to very well. His commitment to family, for instance. They'll get to know his record, and they'll get to know Bush's record, and I expect Gore will win the vast majority of women, which again will be the dominant group and will determine this election -- particularly working women, who are the swing voters.

I don't think it's a surprise that working women haven't paid tremendous attention to this campaign. They're working during the day, and they're coming home at night and working as well. And the election's still a couple months away. But everything we see in polls or focus groups as our case is made shows that Gore will receive their support. And I think we're making a good impression. Obviously tonight is a big night for Gore to make an impression.

Let's talk for a second about Gore's running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. In press accounts, you were advocating strongly for Sen. John Edwards. True?

I'm not going to get into staff conversations; I don't see what good that'll do. I obviously knew John [from working on his 1998 race], and I'd never had a chance to work with Sen. Lieberman, though I thought he was an impressive guy. And I'm tremendously impressed with him as a candidate. But as for who said what about who, I won't get into that.

What about the problems that the selection of Lieberman has caused with the party's left wing, because of his reputation of being moderate to conservative?

I would dispute that there are "problems." There was some confusion about his record and his position on Prop. 209. [In 1996, Lieberman voiced support for a California ballot initiative pushing for an end to "quotas."] There were questions about whether he had positions that were at odds with some constituent groups in the party. But in his speech, he said he supported affirmative action. He said, "Mend it, don't end it."

From what I've seen, there's real support for him. Anyone in the convention hall saw that, and we have almost 1,000 African-American delegates. So I disagree that there's any kind of serious riff. People needed some information, and some of them got the information directly from Sen. Lieberman himself.

Are you concerned at all that any latent anti-Semitism could hurt your ticket's chances? Did you guys poll or focus-group for that at all?

No. And it has not been a subject of research. We don't think that his religion is an issue in the campaign in respect to any potential liability. If anything, there's the sense that Al Gore has done something historic, which has gotten people to see some of the strength and purpose behind Al Gore and his candidacy. As for questions of people not supporting Sen. Lieberman because of his religion, I haven't gotten any great sense of that. Sen. Lieberman's a person of outstanding moral character, and people recognize his independence and integrity, and they think it's an asset.

Lieberman has, generally, received good press. But overall, do you think the coverage of Gore has been unfair?

I'm not going to criticize the coverage. I think that people have been tough on him, but part of that is just a fact of being vice president. The press was very tough on Vice President Bush. And I don't think you can paint with a broad stroke everyone in the media.

How about in comparison with the coverage of Gov. Bush?

I think Gov. Bush has gotten away with a lot in the course of campaign. I was very surprised after [the] South Carolina [primary] that Gov. Bush didn't pay a higher price. But I've been in this business for a long time, and you learn that if you re-litigate the past, your record of success will be diminished. So I don't worry about that. I focus on our message and how we deliver it.

How much will you use President Clinton in the coming months?

The President is obviously an important part of the Democratic Party's efforts in general. He's someone who will go out and work on behalf of the party, and not just the top of the ticket, but for other offices across the nation. I think he'll do it by being someone who raises money, and also he'll go out and campaign, and also by being a good president. But the stage really for the months ahead will be occupied principally by George Bush and Al Gore.

Last night I participated on a panel at the Shadow Convention, and the Nation's Eric Alterman wondered why Democrats never discussed what he thought was a glaring vulnerability in Bush's candidacy: the idea that he's totally unprepared for the job. He quoted Ron Reagan Jr., who during the GOP convention told the Washington Post that Bush's greatest achievement to date is that he's no longer an "obnoxious drunk."

(Laughing) I don't think we'll be going down that road.

But what of the slam that Bush isn't up to the task? Focus groups say that swing voters like Bush, and the only thing standing between him and the White House is voters' concerns that Bush isn't ready for the Oval Office.

I think that gets conveyed when we discuss his record in Texas. When people get a sense of what he did as governor there, their opinion of him in terms of his capacity as president is tremendously diminished. But we really want the campaign to focus on these two candidates, their issues and agendas. Us standing up and saying that Bush is not up for the job is not a tack we're going to take. But it is a conclusion voters will reach on their own when they look at the record. But we're going to focus on trying to connect voters to Al Gore's biography, and then the issue terrain.

But there's a big difference between saying that someone has a conservative record, and saying that someone isn't up to the job -- the latter of which focus groups say is a much larger concern among swing voters. Why not focus on that?

I think we'll get there. I don't think we'll get there by stating the conclusion.

When you go down different roads in a campaign, you make choices. And if you go down that road, you can't go down some other road. We can't communicate 50 things, we can only communicate two or three things. Standing up and saying that Bush doesn't have the experience or the intellect or the skills for the job is an argument to be made, and I understand people will come to that conclusion based on his lack of service. But we think it's stronger to connect people to Al Gore.

We'll discuss the record in Texas, we'll debate policies, and of course I think that some people will come to the conclusion that Bush is not up to the job. And he may help them to do that. Make he'll make a mistake. Or he may not make a mistake, since he's running a campaign that's very tightly controlled, one where he can't mistake, because if he does that will show the depth of his support. But we've decided that you don't say he's only held office for five years, we'll say, "Let me tell you what he did in those five years." We think this is the most powerful road.

Jake Tapper

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

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