- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2000

Vice President Al Gore, frustrated by his inability to catch George W. Bush in the polls, is reinventing himself once more.

He's "going positive" and will delegate attack-dog duties to surrogates.

Republicans ridicule this latest shift in Mr. Gore's strategy, and Democrats insist that taking the high road for a while will revive the vice president's sagging poll numbers.

"It's not the quantity of reinventions, it's the quality," says Democratic strategist Scott Segal. "And as long as what the American public is asked to believe does not absolutely strain credulity, I think the American public is fairly tolerant to see, quote, growth."

Republican strategist Ed Rollins says Mr. Gore's decision to "go positive" after six weeks of attacks on Mr. Bush not only strains credulity, but makes no sense.

"But then, nothing that Gore's doing makes sense," Mr. Rollins says. "His problem is that his campaign seems to change gears every other day. They've got to decide what their strategy is and stick with it.

"The truth of the matter is that when Gore has attacked in the past, he's a better candidate and stronger candidate. Trying to be the good guy while pretending that the surrogates who are out attacking G.W. are not a part of his operation is crazy.

"If he feels strongly enough that he thinks what Bush is proposing is absurd, then he ought to be the one out making the attacks."

Pollster John Zogby, however, says there is merit to the vice president delegating criticism of Mr. Bush to his underlings.

"In some ways, the Gore strategy of him sort of backing off a little bit makes some sense for now," Mr. Zogby says. "The image that Gore has cast for himself needs some retooling. That image, the one that emerged from the primaries, is of a guy who will say anything or do anything to be president and not in a flattering way."

While the vice president himself refrains from attack duty, Mr. Bush does not.

In a speech yesterday, the Texas governor scolded Mr. Gore for presiding over a decline in military readiness.

The vice president, accepting an environmental endorsement in Milwaukee, elected not to return fire. He delegated that chore to his spokesmen, who sent reporters a press release headlined, "Bush talks about military preparedness, but he isn't ready to lead the military."

Scott Segal explains that the vice president's personal style of communication makes it harder for him to succeed with the kind of attacks that the affable Texas governor routinely levels with impunity.

"It's a difference in personality," he says. "With Governor Bush, you have someone who wears his personal competitiveness on his sleeve. Frankly, it's something people like about Governor Bush there is great authenticity.

"If you are competitive about a race and you want to win that race, let people know you want to win, and sometimes that means taking a poke at the other guy.

"Governor Bush tends to react like someone you'd really like to meet or could plausibly meet at a barbecue. He is not the policy wonk. He did not emerge full-blown from the head of Zeus. He is not the president-in-waiting."

Mr. Gore, while competitive in his own right, "is much more likely to gravitate perhaps cynically toward appearing to be presidential," the Democratic strategist explained.

"The vice president, for better or worse, is already a figure of national stature," Mr. Segal says. "The way you conserve that political capital is by appearing presidential and by leaving for others the personal criticism.

"I think you're seeing the same thing in the way Hillary Clinton is approaching Rick Lazio. The only time she mentions him by name is to be critical of him being critical of her. As far as analysis of his voting record or things like that, well, that's left to other folks."

While his surrogates are attacking Mr. Bush, the vice president plans to spend more time speaking in autobiographical terms.

To help him, the Democratic National Committee is readying a multimillion-dollar ad blitz focusing on Mr. Gore's service in Vietnam and his early stint as a newspaper reporter in Nashville, Tenn.

"The fact that he was a newspaperman and a Vietnam vet doesn't mean a whole lot at this point in time, especially when you've been vice president for eight years," Mr. Rollins says. "I mean, everybody in the world knows who Al Gore is. He's been on the stage forever.

"What people don't know is what kind of president he'll be. How does he transfer himself into that role of being viewed by the country as a leader?

"Gore's got to somehow connect with voters, but he clearly cannot do that," Mr. Rollins says. "And he may not even be able to do that until after he's the nominee and then gets to sort of move out of the shadow of Clinton."

As for Mr. Bush continuing to directly criticize the vice president, strategists on both sides of the political aisle urged caution.

"I would save a little bit of the ammunition for the fall, when people start to pay attention," Mr. Rollins says. "The reality is that he's got a long ways to go and this is going to be a very, very close election. It's clearly an eight-week race that starts Labor Day."

Mr. Segal agrees: "This campaign right now is absolutely too close to call."

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