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Gore's N.H. win shows he has no time to lose

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By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2000


WASHINGTON -- In a perfect world, Vice President Al Gore would be basking in victory today.

After all, he won in Iowa and New Hampshire against former Sen. Bill Bradley, and his likely general election rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is locked in a tougher-than-expected struggle for the nomination with Sen. John McCain.

Yet despite Gore's good fortune, he still has any number of reasons to be worried about the final outcome of the Democratic primaries. Among them:

His victory in New Hampshire was not as decisive as expected. In the peculiar world of presidential primary politics, simply winning is not as good if you were expected to win by a larger margin.

Even after two defeats, Bradley is not ready to bow out. The former senator from New Jersey seems to have gotten his back up as a result of Gore's attacks on his proposals, and he has sufficient money to keep fighting.

Gore suddenly finds himself under attack from an unexpected quarter: McCain. The Arizona senator has started bashing Gore to disprove Bush's contention that McCain is neither a true Republican nor a genuine conservative.

Both Bradley and McCain have succeeded in raising doubts about Gore's ethics and truthfulness, creating issues that could come back to haunt him in the general election.

Perhaps these concerns explain why Gore did not ease off for even a minute after the results of the New Hampshire primary were reported Tuesday night. Instead, he immediately left New Hampshire for a 2 a.m. rally at La Guardia Airport in New York, a quick stop in Ohio and then a flight to California for another appearance.

For his part, Bradley demonstrated his determination to continue the battle by challenging Gore to a weekly debate. Bradley earlier resisted Gore's call for regular debates. At this point, however, Bradley has more to gain from debates.

"We're smarter and better prepared, and we're ready to continue the fight," Bradley told his supporters after the New Hampshire returns came in.

Even if Bradley cannot win the Democratic nomination, he does not seem inclined to let Gore take it without roughing him up.

"Gore's idea seemed to be, "I'll knock Bradley out in the second round, and then I'll help him up, dust him off, and by the time we get to the championship round, he'll be in my corner,"' said political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "But Bradley seems to want to say, "The title was stolen from me,' and he won't quit fighting. He's feeling he's been wronged."

Ornstein said it's likely that Bradley, if he loses the nomination, will show up at the Democratic National Convention "with a big chip on his shoulder" -- much as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy did in 1980 after losing the nomination to incumbent President Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan went on to beat Carter in the general election.

In many ways, Bradley was energized by the New Hampshire primary, where, after weeks of trying to hold himself above the fray, he went on the attack. He brought up allegations that Gore violated campaign fundraising laws in 1996, and he accused the vice president of being a latecomer to his position in favor of abortion rights.

McCain underscored Bradley's attack on Gore by recalling how the vice president visited a Buddhist temple in California in 1996 and received illegal campaign contributions from the saffron-robed nuns who greeted him. It was the kind of attack that Gore had not expected until the general election.

If Bradley decides to continue his assault on Gore's record as expected, the harshest weapon available to him would be to recall how the vice president defended President Clinton last year after he was impeached by the House. This, too, is a problem that Gore did not expect to face until after he had nailed down the nomination.

Of course, things could be much worse for Gore.

His support among Democratic regulars and officeholders across the country gives him a continuing advantage in primaries from Florida to California. And Bush, his likely general election opponent, is going to be preoccupied for some time with a GOP primary battle.

Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, notes that Gore succeeded during the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries in positioning himself as a centrist -- "both a fiscal conservative and a strong supporter of Social Security and Medicare."

Unlike Bush, Gore still seems virtually assured of his party's nomination and polls continue to show him as the more electable of his party's candidates in November.

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