- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2000

Two and a half months after Al Gore easily clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, he is still struggling to rally the grass-roots base of his party behind his troubled candidacy.

On the surface, Mr. Gore is campaigning around the country, giving speeches, holding interviews, and, in an abrupt switch in tactics, letting surrogates attack George W. Bush while he stays positive and above the fray. But beneath the surface, party insiders say Mr. Gore's campaign is unfocused and without substance. There is constant turmoil over strategy, staff morale is low, and there is a growing feeling among strategists that campaign chief Tony Coelho is out of his depth.

Mr. Gore certainly should have nailed down his party's base by now. He should be reaching out to the vital middle the independent, centrist voters who decide presidential elections.

Instead, a little more than two months before the Democratic Convention, Mr. Gore is still fighting to unite his party's divided and discontented base. He is having trouble with key labor unions, which are enraged by his support for the China trade bill; with liberal activist groups that think that Mr. Gore isn't liberal enough; and even with Hispanics, more than a third of whom like Mr. Bush.

In contrast, Mr. Bush quickly rallied his party's constituencies behind him and began reaching out to Democratic and independent swing voters early. The speed with which Mr. Bush moved in the post-primary phase surprised the Gore camp, which was caught off-balance by the pace of his offensive.

While Mr. Gore was raising money to replenish his campaign coffers, Mr. Bush was coming out with a raft of proposals aimed at lower-income voters and repositioning himself as a center-right Republican. Mr. Gore responded to each new initiative with his usual attack-style charges, but Mr. Bush captured the headlines and made news.

Little has changed since then. Mr. Bush continues to dictate the pace and focus of the campaign with initiatives that have won favorable reviews, even from some of the nation's most liberal newspapers.

His bold proposal of personal retirement accounts struck a responsive chord with voters, especially the investor class, leaving Mr. Gore to sputter with old-fashioned Democratic attacks that left him defending the status quo. "Score a major coup for Bush," said pollster John Zogby, whose polls show Mr. Gore's attacks have had no impact on this major issue.

Soon after that, Mr. Bush struck again with an equally bold proposal to cut back the number of nuclear warheads, while pushing full steam ahead with an anti-missile system envisioned by Ronald Reagan. In one master stroke, Mr. Bush has broken away from the Cold War's mutual assured destruction policy, and is winning plaudits from even The Washington Post and the New York Times.

Meantime, Al Gore's campaign remains distracted by the problems in his own party. Among organized labor, the party's backbone, the United Auto Workers and Teamsters have refused to endorse him, and are hinting that they might get behind Green Party candidate Ralph Nader or sit out the presidential election altogether.

A statement issued by UAW president Stephen Yokich the week of the China trade vote stunned the Gore camp. Mr. Yokich declared that the union now had "no choice but to actively explore alternatives to the two major political parties."

This means, UAW officials told me, that they could endorse Mr. Nader's third-party candidacy or remain neutral, something the union has never done before. "Gore has a lot of work to do to solidify the base, especially in terms of union members," said UAW spokesman Paul Krell. "Gore can't take the core Democratic Party constituencies for granted at this point."

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders around the country are bombarding Mr. Gore with complaints. Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, a Gore ally, now questions whether Mr. Gore even has a campaign worthy of the name.

"People are starting to ask, 'When does he get started? When does he get focused? When does the show hit the road?' " a frustrated Mr. Rangel told the New York Times.

Mr. Rangel said that when he raised his concerns with the Gore campaign, he was told "No one gets serious until Labor Day."

For now, Mr. Gore is running 6 to 9 points behind Mr. Bush and party strategists worry that the numbers are beginning to harden. "We're seeing slippage, and that's disappointing," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, a Democrat from the Bronx, N.Y.

Gore campaign officials continue to paper over the bad news by insisting that it is still early in the campaign, and that there is plenty of time to catch up. But Democrats such as Mr. Rangel think they are in deep denial.

The latest independent polls show Mr. Bush taking a surprising 37 percent of the union-household vote, compared with Mr. Gore's 55 percent.

UAW officials say that Mr. Gore will need at least 60 percent of the union vote to carry pivotal states such as Michigan, where the race is a dead heat. But at this point, Mr. Gore is not getting that level of support from rank-and-file union workers, they say.

And this, say Democratic insiders, could be a fatal blow to Mr. Gore's trouble-plagued presidential campaign.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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