- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2000

Things are not going so well for Al Gore's presidential campaign not when he is struggling in states such as Oregon and Washington, which the Democrats have carried in the last three presidential elections.

Six months before the voters go to the polling booths, the Gore campaign is sending disturbing signals that it doesn't have its act together. One day it seems to be playing to its political base, which should have been secured long ago, and the next it is trying to reach out to centrist independents with liberal-sounding, big-spending proposals.

"Certainly, I'm concerned," said veteran Democratic Party strategist Amy Isaacs, the national director of Americans for Democratic Action. "But I'm not panic-stricken. It's a little early in the game."

Still, a state-by-state examination of where Mr. Gore's campaign stands at this moment suggest it is in deep trouble.

He has angered Democrats with his pandering to the Cuban vote in Florida in the Elian Gonzalez controversy and his attempts to distance himself from the administration's gun-wielding seizure of the 6-year-old shipwreck survivor. The Justice Department is investigating his role in the White House's missing e-mail communications dealing with the Clinton-Gore campaign finance scandal. He is struggling to find a message that can reach independents, while his political base is looking shaky in must-win states.

George W. Bush continues to lead Mr. Gore by 5 percent to 9 percent in the national popular vote surveys, but the picture appears even bleaker for Mr. Gore when you look at the key states that can give him the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

The latest state polls show Mr. Bush with slight leads in Pennsylvania and Illinois, two big electoral prizes Mr. Gore cannot afford to lose. Other polls showed Mr. Gore falling slightly behind Mr. Bush in Oregon and Washington, two states that have been in the Democratic column since 1988.

Incredibly, Mr. Bush is running 9 points ahead in West Virginia, a diehard Democratic bastion that Republicans have carried only three times in the last 65 years.

Mr. Gore is also struggling in key Midwestern states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, while Mr. Bush holds a solid 6- to 8-point lead in Ohio.

There are even signs that California, with its huge 54 electoral votes, is becoming more competitive. Mr. Gore has led there all year, but recent state polls show his lead may have shrunk to 5 points, and that Mr. Bush's focus on the Latino vote may be paying off.

Republican strategists say that internal Republican polls show Mr. Bush in a statistical dead heat among Californians who are likely to vote, and may be gaining more than a third of the Latino vote.

Mr. Bush appears to have improved his position in the past month with his emphasis on education and restoring a more bipartisan tone in Washington, and his series of centrist-sounding proposals aimed at helping low-income people buy health insurance, build savings and become homeowners.

Mr. Gore, on the other hand, still seems to be searching for a message that can appeal to the independents who will decide this election. A speech last week on education was seen as more of a "me-too" response to Mr. Bush's initiatives.

His escalating attacks on Mr. Bush sound mean-spirited and desperate, especially when Mr. Bush responds by calling for a more positive tone in politics. And when Mr. Gore's attacks are played up in the news, they drown out his policy messages.

Meantime, last month's Mason-Dixon poll in Illinois, where 22 electoral votes are at stake, showed Mr. Bush inching ahead 44 percent to 42 percent. In the Northeast, another poll showed Mr. Bush with a similarly slight lead in Pennsylvania.

But Mr. Gore's weakness is most surprising in the Pacific Northwest, where Mr. Bush has suddenly become competitive in Oregon and Washington.

A survey by the Portland Oregonian newspaper showed Mr. Bush ahead there 40 percent to 37 percent. In Washington state, another poll showed Mr. Bush with a 1 or 2 point lead a statistical dead heat. Democratic strategists say both states are now "in play."

In Oregon, many timber-industry workers see Mr. Gore as a radical environmentalist who will take away their jobs, while some environmentalists question his commitment to their agenda. Bill Clinton was able to bridge both camps, but Mr. Gore does not have his political skills.

In Washington, Mr. Gore is being hurt by his support of the administration's antitrust suit against Microsoft, the headquarters of which is in Redmond, Wash., and his refusal to rule out tearing down the dams on the Snake River, which are critical to the state's economy. A strong vote for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader would cut into Mr. Gore's liberal voter base and hand the state to Mr. Bush.

The question that some Democratic strategists are now asking themselves: If Mr. Gore is having an unexpectedly hard time in usually reliable Democratic states such as Oregon and Washington, where can he win 270 electoral votes? And is it too late to change a candidate who has already undergone one of the most publicized reinventions in political memory?

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

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