- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

The Bush camp should be getting a little nervous. Despite the fact that Vice President Al Gore is running a campaign that combines the charm of Richard Nixon with the strategic sense of Michael Dukakis, polling discloses that Mr. Gore is running within a half-dozen points of Gov. George W. Bush. It is essentially an even contest. And this is in the face of Mr. Bush's almost flawless post-primary campaign, which has gotten off to the fastest start since Napoleon subdued Paris with a whiff of grapeshot. The Gore strategy for victory is apparently to be the incumbent vice president and hope for computer errors in the voting booths. It may work.

After an appalling two months of savage, if ineffective, personal invective against Mr. Bush, Mr. Gore launched a charm offensive always a risky scheme for those not blessed with grace or wit. He came out against cancer which is safe, but unoriginal garnering a not too useful Washington Post headline: "Gore Refrains From Attack on Bush."

In rededicating the country to a "war on cancer" (Nixon first declared the war three decades ago), Mr. Gore referred to his sister's death from lung cancer. The week before, he came out against depression, which, understandably, his wife, Tipper, has said she suffers from. There is something a little self-centered about condemning only the diseases experienced by his immediate family. He might want to declare war on Tay-Sachs disease or sickle cell anemia, just for diversity's sake. He finished up last week coming out in favor of finding good jobs for poor fathers by promising a lordly $50 million per annum collective stipend to the nation's unfortunates. This week he is meeting with that great moral philosopher, Rosie O'Donnell, to discuss child care, in an apparent attempt to corner the moron vote.

But in the middle of this intended feel-good campaign, the CBS television station in Nashville, Tenn., broke the story that Mr. Gore is a slumlord. According to CBS, Mr. Gore has failed to maintain a small house that he rents out to a Tracy Mayberry and her family. After she complained "three dozen times" about the plumbing, which "smells just like an open sewer" and is "held together with bread ties," the vice president's land agent moved to evict the woman and her disabled husband, mentally retarded daughter and another child with a seizure disorder. This Dickensian family lives on the husband's meager monthly Social Security disability payment.

Mrs. Mayberry publicly accused Mr. Gore of being a slumlord, after which Mr. Gore snapped into action by sending his spokesman out to explain that he's "not what you'd call a hands-on landlord …[he] was not aware of the house's condition." He made this claim despite the fact that the house is within view of his ancestral Tennessee estate, which he regularly visits. Of course, he claimed he didn't know he was raising campaign money in a Buddhist temple. Mr. Gore is a devotee of the governing principle that one admits something only when a denial could be promptly disproved by readily available public documents.

It should be noted, in Mr. Gore's defense, that once publicly caught slumlording, he willingly apologized and promised to take care of the family. Of course, the test of character is what one does when no one is looking.

Mr. Gore's charm offensive took another unfortunate detour when a memo was made public last Friday possibly implicating Mr. Gore in an illegal influence-peddling scheme. The unsigned, undated memo suggests that the vice president would put pressure on the General Services Administration to bail out a $400 million Washington real estate project owned by Franklin Haney, a longtime Gore supporter.

Although the GSA did bail out Mr. Gore's fat-cat pal, and although Mr. Gore's former chief of staff, Peter Knight, was paid a million dollars to grease the skids, and although the memo indicates a meeting was held between Mr. Gore's pal and a GSA official characterized in the memo as "driven by fund-raisers in the Democratic Party," the vice president once again denied any knowledge or complicity. Mr. Gore is assembling an impressive list of denials. He must be holding his breath to see if they stick.

If this campaign was Mr. Gore's to lose, he has gone a fair way toward losing it. A careful reading of Mr. Gore's public image reveals that the public does not see him as the ruthless competitor Washington insiders have known for years. Mr. Gore's constant strategy shifts, reconstructive image surgeries and stumbling performance is being interpreted by the public as gutless, indecisive and ineffective. They don't see his manipulations so much as they see his inconstancy.

But this campaign is not Mr. Gore's to lose; it is Mr. Bush's to win. And, while Mr. Bush has made good progress in the past two months, he has not yet made the sale. Therein lies the explanation for Mr. Gore's continuing competitiveness in the polls.

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