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A few days at the front

VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: In its latest incarnation, his "prosperity and progress'' message keeps getting lost amid annoying distractions.

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000


ABOARD AIR FORCE TWO -- When most people come upon a complex problem, they try to simplify it. Not Al Gore.

He breaks the problem into small pieces -- sometimes literally using scissors to cut huge documents into paragraph-sized slivers -- and then carefully works through each complicated piece.

So it is not surprising that a man who thrives on complexity -- who loves talking about the chaos theory in science, for example -- would adopt a scatter-shot approach to campaigning for the presidency.

Just as Gore sometimes seems to want to be all things to all people, he also appears determined to solve all of the nation's social problems at once -- each with a complex, government-funded program.

Gore's current "prosperity and progress" tour offers a case study of his unique approach to campaigning. The three-week cross-country initiative was unveiled two weeks ago in an effort to bring new life to his flagging presidential effort. Yet it lacks the focus and definition that one might expect from the thematic centerpiece of a presidential campaign.

"Prosperity and progress" are the two words Gore has chosen to signal voters that he intends to continue building upon the economic good times that commenced during the Clinton administration. The initiative encompasses the big ticket programs Gore would put in place using the federal budget surplus.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," Gore likes to tell his audiences. "Together we can build even higher and stronger on the foundation of the Clinton years."

While Gore's GOP opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, wants to spend the surplus on an across-the-board tax cut, the vice president would instead bolster Social Security and Medicare by paying off the national debt.

Then Gore would add targeted middle-class tax cuts, prescription drug benefits for the elderly, tax free savings accounts and training for low income workers and more spending on education and the environment.

In general, Gore's proposals are more detailed than Bush's, a result of his detail-oriented mind and his years in government service. But with the details come a measure of complexity and confusion that so far have obscured the very thing he is trying to highlight: the basic difference between his approach and Bush's.

In addition, the campaign has had many distractions.

Even those voters keeping up with Gore's developing list of proposals must be confused by the frequent campaign reorganizations, President Clinton's continued dominance in Democratic politics and the Justice Department's investigation of his alleged fundraising missteps in 1996.

These developments are a real disappointment to those who, like Gore, want the 2000 presidential election to hinge on big policy issues, not personality.

"I think this election is about something real; I see profound differences between Gore and Bush about what to do with the surplus," said Tom Mann, political scientist at the Brookings Institution. "The irony is that we're going to talk about whether Janet Reno should appoint a special counsel to investigate the Buddhist temple fundraiser."

Eclipsing his own news

The fanfare could not have been longer or louder. For three days, newspapers and broadcast news trumpeted Gore's plans to unveil a new retirement savings program. Gore himself spent several days writing and rewriting the upcoming speech.

At the appointed hour last Tuesday morning, an enthusiastic crowd of more than 300 Democratic Party activists assembled in the convention center in Lexington, Ky., to hear the speech. Behind the podium, Gore's staff had hung a huge banner printed with the words "prosperity and progress."

But as Gore's 20-minute speech progressed, the applause gradually grew less and less enthusiastic. Despite the hype, the speech proved to be ordinary, filled with platitudes and delivered in an insincere, sing-song voice.

"As president," he pledged, "I'll have an economic plan that's rooted in our values: Discipline in the choices our government makes about spending. Conscience for the future -- to pay off the debt that no generation of children should inherit. Decency in meeting the needs of our mothers and fathers. And boldness in taking on the new challenge of a new century."

As it turned out, Gore's proposal, which he called Retirement Savings Plus, was not exactly new. It borrowed heavily from a proposal by President Clinton that had gotten very little attention.

Under the plan, the government would make contributions totaling $200-billion over 10 years into special savings accounts belonging to families with annual incomes of $100,000 or less.

Minutes after Gore finished the speech, he announced he was unexpectedly returning to Washington for a Senate vote on a hate crimes bill -- in case his vote was needed to break a tie. It wasn't.

While waiting for the vote in the vice president's office just off the Senate floor Tuesday night, Gore also called Midwestern journalists to express his outrage over high gas prices in that region.

In essence, Gore committed a classic political blunder by generating news about hate crimes and gas prices that eclipsed his highly touted morning speech about retirement savings.

As his weeklong trip progressed through Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and California -- ending up Saturday night in Miami -- he returned to the discussion of retirement security only once more.

By week's end, his plan for retirement savings had gotten lost amid all of the other initiatives that he mentioned in his many public speeches, news conferences, interviews and private appearances at Democratic fundraisers.

Fundraising questions

Three days after the Lexington speech, Air Force Two was carrying Gore and his entourage to Silicon Valley, where the vice president was planning to unveil a proposal for job training.

But reporters traveling in the back of the plane were interested in something entirely different. The question they were debating: Will Gore respond to accusations that he lied to a Justice Department official on April 18 when he was questioned about his role in the 1996 fundraising scandal?

Just as the big plane was landing in Palo Alto, Calif., Gore proudly announced he would release the 150-page transcript of his interview with the Justice Department.

It was a bold move, but once again circumstances had eclipsed Gore's effort to focus attention on his policy initiatives.

When he arrived at a job training center in San Mateo for a carefully planned event with people who had benefited from mid career retraining, the media were still focused on the fundraising controversy.

A similar distraction had occurred just a week earlier when another one of Gore's "prosperity and progress" events was upstaged by the resignation of campaign chief Tony Coelho and the announcement that Commerce Secretary Bill Daley would be taking his place.

Even if the news media had focused on Gore's job training event in Silicon Valley on Friday, however, there is no guarantee the highly detailed proposals would have penetrated the public psyche. The plan calls for employer tax credits of up to $6,000 per worker for technology training, tax credits of up to $10,000 for post-secondary education and tax-free 401(j) accounts to finance life-long learning. Those are just a few of the details.

Too early to panic

By tradition, the presidential campaign does not formally get under way until after Labor Day. So both candidates view the current period between the primaries and the national nominating conventions as a time for testing campaign themes and tinkering with the campaign machinery.

Norman Ornstein, political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, compares this period in the campaign to the early rounds of the National Basketball Association playoffs, when only the most die-hard fans are paying attention.

"Everyone knows it doesn't matter until the semifinals," Ornstein said.

With this thought in mind, Gore's advisers are not panicking yet -- even though the polls show their man is gradually falling behind Bush.

Gore's supporters note that in 1988 Bush's father, then the vice president, was trailing Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis at this juncture in the campaign. But Bush won in November.

"It's extremely hard for the vice president to appear to be a leader prior to Labor Day," said Brookings' Mann. "I take the polls now to be close to worthless."

Nevertheless, Gore appears to have a lot of work to do if he still hopes to win in November. And one of his biggest tasks will be to refine his message so that the words "prosperity and progress" are something more than a high-sounding slogan.

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