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To Gore's Tennessee campaigners, things are looking up for their candidate

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Inside Al Gore's national headquarters, phone lines were taped to the floor, the air conditioning was out and large floor fans stirred the thick air.

Outside, piles of red dirt from a road construction project turned the entrance into an obstacle course. A billboard, rented by the Republican National Committee, towered overhead with a picture of Gore and an old quote by Bill Bradley from January: "If you can't tell the truth as a candidate how can we be sure you will tell the truth as president?"

The Gore camp, though, acts anything but besieged.

Two days of hanging out here last week left the impression that the vice president's campaign aides are cockeyed optimists, delusional -- or possess a secret weapon they are just waiting to unleash on George W. Bush.

In the spin wars aimed at filling reporters' heads and notebooks during the campaigns' late spring doldrums, Bush's staff held briefings in Austin to remind everyone how well the Texas governor has fared in dozens of national polls. The latest national polls, which matter little now, call the race a dead heat.

Here, Gore's aides shot Bush's policy proposals full of holes. They trashed his record as governor in Texas. They handed out policy papers from friendly economists who contended Bush's plan to let younger workers divert some of their payroll taxes from Social Security into private investment accounts would wreck the government program.

The message: Once voters start focusing on Bush's record and the details of his proposals, they will flock to Gore like flies to a Tennessee barbecue.

Candor was in short supply.

There was the rare acknowledgement that Gore has not made the best use of the past 10 weeks since sewing up the Democratic nomination. Bush spent the time repairing the damage from the primaries. He made a predictable move back to the middle after drifting to the religious right to lock up the nomination.

To counter the notion that he has little intellectual heft and even less vision, Bush has regularly rolled out policy initiatives on issues ranging from Social Security to national defense.

Gore spent much of the time responding to Bush's proposals. He continued the same attack style he used to derail Bradley's challenge in the primary, often sounding shrill.

In Florida, Attorney General Bob Butterworth summed up what few Gore aides here would acknowledge even privately.

"The Gore campaign has been flat for the last couple of months," said Butterworth, the state chairman for the vice president's campaign. "Momentum with the media has gone with Bush, and now it's swinging back to Gore."

That's because the Democrat has reinvented his campaign -- again.

Gore has transformed from attack dog back into policy wonk. In a style perfected by Bill Clinton, he is promoting modest initiatives aimed at touching everyday lives.

Tax breaks and other incentives to improve child care. Tax credits and other reforms for families caring for sick or disabled relatives. Protection against the sale of Social Security numbers. More government services over the Internet.

"I think what we're seeing is the evolution of the campaign as it begins to heat up -- even though the heat is very low in the eyes of many voters," Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway said. "He's been focusing on a new family agenda of issues that really affect people's family lives."

Meanwhile, the attacks on Bush will be delivered by surrogates instead of the vice president himself. Gore campaign aides believe the Texas governor's proposals on Social Security, health care and education won't hold up under scrutiny by the voters.

"The problem now is, he's stuck with these proposals," said Mark Fabiani, a deputy campaign manager and recent addition to the Nashville team. "In the fall, when people really are paying attention, he is going to be asked hard questions. . . . "

Maybe.

In the meantime, Gore will continue to face criticism from Republicans and others over the launch of the first ads paid for with soft money, or unlimited contributions, by the Democratic National Committee.

The Democrat said in Tallahassee in March that he would instruct the party not to run those sorts of ads as long as Republicans and its allies did not. Now Gore says it was more of a challenge than a pledge and that Republicans never agreed to it.

Voters may not be interested in the details of the efforts by both parties to take soft-money ads to even greater heights than those employed by Clinton four years ago. More troubling for Gore is the perception that he once again appears to have said one thing and done another, regardless of the technicalities.

But in the days before the official start of summer, there are other reasons for Gore's Tennessee team to be upbeat.

Their man is on television now in key states.

The campaign's national staff is about to triple, to nearly 300.

And this weekend, the entire headquarters moved to a nicer, larger building closer to downtown.

This one even has air conditioning.

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