President Clinton agreed yesterday to make a last-minute coast-to-coast campaign swing to help what some Democrats describe as a faltering Al Gore campaign.
Gov. Gray Davis of California is the most prominent Democrat who has been pleading for the president to rescue his vice president.
Most of the latest national polls show the vice president trailing Mr. Bush by two to eight points and falling behind in pivotal battleground states. Mr. Clinton’s mission will be to shore up support in these states and to “energize the base” of blacks and labor-union members.
“He’s immensely popular here,” Mr. Davis told reporters in Sacramento. “He’s one of the most compelling speakers in American politics, and there’s no one I can think of, absent the candidate himself, who could rally Democrats and independents and motivate them to turn out, than President Clinton.”
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said Mr. Clinton is not coming out just for the vice president.
“[Mr. Clinton] will be out there for all Democrats. We’re glad to see him out there,” the spokesman said.
But he reiterated what Mr. Gore has been saying since he accepted the Democratic nomination.
“This is a race Al Gore is running as his own man, on his own agenda and in his own voice.”
The Bush campaign last night called the president’s tour “a desperation move by Gore,” and though Gore campaign spokesmen said they were happy to have the president’s help, the vice president has resisted for weeks suggestions that Mr. Clinton join his campaign.
The vice president, who has worked since the Democratic National Convention to project an image of independence from the president, is said to fear being further linked to the scandals of the Clinton presidency and to avoid the perception that the president had to step in to save his candidacy.
When he appeared in Mr. Clinton’s home state this week in Little Rock, Mr. Gore pointedly did not invoke the president’s name, and referred only twice in two speeches to “the Clinton-Gore administration.”
Arkansas, in fact, is one of the states on Mr. Clinton’s prospective itinerary. After meeting with black clergymen and labor leaders early next week at the White House, he expects to visit his home state, Louisiana, Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia en route to California. He will fly to his new home in New York on Election Eve to be with his wife, Hillary, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in New York.
The White House gave no clear answer yesterday when reporters inquired whether Mr. Gore asked for help, or whether Mr. Clinton asked the vice president whether he wanted help.
“I don’t know if well, I did not,” said press spokesman Jake Siewart. “But he talks to him all the time; I don’t know whether this came up. But we obviously have consulted with the vice president’s staff about our travel schedule, and we’ll continue to do so. But I would not, I think, just to get at your question, I wouldn’t this is something that had been scheduled for a while and primarily is meant to build some support for some of the members that are running in House and local races there.”
It was not clear last night whether the Gore campaign had given its formal approval to the president’s campaign plans.
“I have no idea how it was worked out,” said a top Davis adviser. “The governor did call the president directly and asked him to come out. What approval was obtained, I don’t know. The president can travel wherever he wants to without getting approval.”
The latest move by Mr. Clinton follows news stories in which he criticized the way the Gore campaign is being run and complained that Mr. Gore had not asked for his help.
Mr. Clinton intends to boost Mr. Gore’s candidacy among several hundred community leaders he has invited to the White House today, to be followed by a White House event with several hundred ministers on Monday.
The president may make several day trips early next week before leaving on a five-day barnstorming tour of the country on Thursday. Campaign stops that are under consideration include Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Kentucky all states that are critical to Mr. Gore’s chances and where polls show Mr. Bush now leads.
Mr. Clinton intends to spend two days late next week in California, where media polls show Mr. Gore just four or five points up, but where Mr. Bush’s own internal campaign polls show the race even closer.
Garry South, Mr. Davis’ chief strategist and a top Gore campaign adviser in California, fired off his own complaints, suggesting that Mr. Gore has taken his state for granted and could end up losing it if he does not change his strategy.
Mr. Gore, who has based his entire election strategy on winning California’s huge cache of 54 electoral votes, has been so confident of carrying the state that he has not run any ads there a decision that some Democrats now think may be a fatal one.
The Republican National Committee has been spending $1.5 million a week on its media campaign in Mr. Bush’s behalf. And the RNC announced last week that it was expanding its media campaign in the state’s large Hispanic community, a minority bloc that Mr. Bush has been courting aggressively there.
In another signal that it now believes it can win California, the Bush campaign said yesterday that it was making its first general election media buy in the state, further expanding the GOP’s investment there.
“If Bush is preparing to take $1.5 million out of his general election allocation and spend it in California, that tells you something. The Bush campaign’s not filled with idiots. They are not going to make an expenditure like this without seeing something out there,” a worried Mr. South said.
Mr. South made it clear in a telephone interview that he remained unhappy with the Gore campaign’s decision not to run any ads in the state or to bring Mr. Gore in to offset Mr. Bush’s appearances next week.
“We’re in the low single digits. The race will tighten up when you have one side spending millions on the air and the other side not providing an answer to those attacks. I’m still not happy with the fact that [the Bush ads] still have not been answered and that there are no plans [by the Gore campaign] to answer them,” he told The Washington Times.
“The bottom line remains that if we can’t carry California, it doesn’t matter what other states Gore carries, including Florida,” he said.