- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Vice President Al Gore is having trouble staying "on message" because his daily pronouncements on taxes, education and Social Security are increasingly overshadowed by turmoil, missteps and scandals in the Gore camp.

Less than halfway through his three-week "prosperity tour," the vice president finds himself taking more questions about his staff shake-up than the economy's record expansion.

"Gore's biggest problem is that he hasn't been able to punch through on any of his major policy initiatives, which are actually quite good," said Democratic strategist Jonathan Trichter. "The press will continue to write process stories about a campaign in disarray until he finds an issue on which he can punch through and begin to connect with the public."

So far this month, Mr. Gore's talking points have been drowned out by a steady stream of unflattering news coverage:

• Commerce Secretary William M. Daley's replacement of Tony Coelho as campaign chairman last week dominated the political headlines for days, obliterating Mr. Gore's attempt to take at least some credit for the booming economy.

• The vice president was accused of being a "slumlord" by a tenant who rents a house from him in Carthage, Tenn. While the story was downplayed by much of the media, it provided fodder for late-night TV hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman and for the Republican National Committee.

• The content of Mr. Gore's speech on health care last week was utterly lost in the flap created when a Catholic bishop barred the vice president from delivering the speech in a hospital run by nuns. The bishop denounced the vice president for supporting the "unspeakable crime" of abortion.

• The White House announced that Mr. Gore's e-mail on Monica Lewinsky and other scandals had been lost, along with backups of the subpoenaed messages. The computer-savvy vice president, who once claimed to have invented the Internet, explained the disappearance by insisting he is not an expert on computers.

• Mr. Gore's name surfaced prominently in newly released memos by FBI and Justice Department officials who tried in vain to persuade Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate campaign fund-raising abuses.

"This guy is snake-bit," muttered an exasperated Gore supporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I'll tell you what finally did it for me: Just when he was trying to be softer and more positive, what happens? He's a slumlord. Talk about a bad break. The tenant's toilet overflows."

Publicly, Gore backers insist the vice president will become a good candidate at the Democratic National Convention in August and pull ahead of Mr. Bush in September and October. They emphasize that most voters aren't yet paying much attention to the campaign.

But privately, the vice president's supporters worry increasingly that the months of stories about Mr. Gore's flagging campaign and constant reinventions are creating a template of public perception that is hardening as the contest grinds forward.

They are beginning to fret that if Mr. Gore doesn't find his footing soon, the die will be cast by the time the convention rolls around.

"A lot of us are worried about the new themes or 'new Gores' that are announced so often, because they emphasize Gore's weakness versus Bush," the Gore backer said. "He doesn't seem to have a consistent thread and coherency to his campaign. And George Bush does."

Even Mr. Gore's list of possible running mates is causing him headaches. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is under intense criticism for failing to rein in gasoline prices and stem security lapses at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

While political operatives on both sides of the aisle agree that Mr. Richardson has all but ruined his chances to become vice president, Mr. Gore is reluctant to appear disloyal by publicly scratching the energy secretary from his short list.

Thus, the Gore camp found itself in the awkward position over the weekend of insisting that the embattled Mr. Richardson is still very much in the running to become Mr. Gore's political partner.

"These are the kinds of things that happen when your campaign is not going well I mean, it feeds on itself," said Republican strategist Rich Galen, publisher of the political cyber-column, Mullings.com. "A campaign that can't get its bearings just gets rocked from side to side.

"It's like a tennis match when you get your opponent running from cross-court to cross-court," he said. "All they can do is hit the ball back to the center. Meanwhile, you're running them ragged from the left out-of-bounds line to the right."

To make matters worse, attempts by Gore surrogates to knock Mr. Bush "off message" have been largely unsuccessful.

For example, liberals tried to make the death penalty a campaign issue against Mr. Bush last week, but the vice president refused to join the attacks, which risked having him seem soft on crime. With two-thirds of Americans supporting capital punishment, Democrats concluded the issue might backfire and help Mr. Bush.

Mr. Gore himself is having enormous difficulty finding issues that allow him to gain ground on his opponent. After lambasting Mr. Bush's tax-cut plan as too big, the vice president last week doubled his own tax-cut plan.

Mr. Gore's formal announcement today of a new retirement program to supplement Social Security already has been cast by newspapers such as the New York Times as merely a response to Mr. Bush's popular call for partial privatization of Social Security.

But former White House special counsel Lanny Davis, a Gore loyalist, predicted the economy will be the issue with which Mr. Gore connects with voters.

"The overall message that Gore is stressing and I believe it's the only message that will determine the election is: How happy are you with the Gore policies of the last eight years?" Mr. Davis said. "If the answer is, 'I'm happy and I want them to continue,' he will win. If the answer is, 'I'm not happy and I want change,' he will lose."

Mr. Galen said the vice president's problems are fixable.

"But for now, it's like there's some kind of miasma hanging over the campaign," he added. "It's like 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.' He just can't seem to find his way out."

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