All That Gore Bashing May Not Leave Much Of A Dent

Does this sound familiar? A popular President, enmeshed in a scandal, gallops away as partisan attacks bounce off his Teflon armor. His loyal No.2, lacking the boss's charm, becomes a target of foes who consider him an easier mark. Sure, the Vice-President is still considered the front-runner for the next Presidential election. But doubts grow about his leadership skills. And critics sneer that he's a stiff.

Al Gore, meet George Bush. Eleven years ago, the Iran-contra scandal put Bush in a bind much like the one Gore finds himself in today. But Bush survived and went on to win the Presidency in 1988. Political pros say Gore can pull off the same trick as he struggles to escape being tarnished by Donorgate and Bill Clinton's alleged affair with a former White House intern.

NET FLAP. The GOP is doing its best to keep the heat on Gore by questioning his credibility and policy stances. On Feb. 10, Senate Republicans leaked a report accusing Gore of improperly soliciting donations in '96 and lying when he said he didn't know that the now-famous Buddhist-temple event was a fund-raiser.

At the same time, GOP lawmakers are blasting a Gore pet project: requiring telecom giants to wire all schools and libraries to the Internet by 2000. Republicans say the plan will spread pornography into the schools. And they say it is jacking up phone bills because some long-distance carriers are already passing anticipated costs on to consumers. Gore is also under attack for his role in negotiating a pact in Kyoto last December to curb global warming: GOP critics claim it will cost millions of U.S. jobs. And one of the zillion sex-scandal jokes going around is that Clinton has a three-word secret weapon for staving off impeachment: President Al Gore. "If Bill Clinton is Teflon so far, Al Gore is flypaper--whatever flies by will stick," chirps Republican National Committee communications director Mike Collins.

Recent polls bear that out. Although Gore receives high approval marks as Veep, most voters are not yet convinced that he's Presidential timber. According to a mid-January Gallup Poll, only 30% of respondents considered him qualified enough for the top job to vote for him; 36% said he's unfit to be President. "The question is whether they'd trust him as President," says Vanderbilt University political scientist Erwin C. Hargrove. Adds Richard Bennett, an independent New Hampshire pollster: "I'd be concerned if I were Al Gore."

Similar things were said about Bush. But, in fact, many of the factors that helped Bush bounce back could also work in Gore's favor. The economy is booming. The Veep has a tremendous edge over potential primary rivals in money and organization. And like the Democratic "seven dwarfs" of 1988, the lineup of GOP hopefuls for 2000--with the possible exception of Texas Governor George W. Bush--is short in stature. Besides, the public seems satisfied with a government that has a Democratic President and GOP-controlled Congress.

CONSPIRACY THEORY. "There are so many similarities between them," says Marlin Fitzwater, who was a press secretary to both Ronald Reagan and Bush. "I don't see any way Gore could be denied the nomination unless the economy goes down the tubes."

That's why Gore's handlers claim they're not shaken by the recent GOP barrage. "Republicans realize they have a formidable political opponent," says Gore media adviser Robert D. Squier. "When you have somebody who stands apart from the rest, a conspiracy forms naturally. It's all aimed at him, and it's pretty easy to spot."

Even Gore's harshest critics concede that he's still the man to beat in 2000. So they're trying their hardest to rough him up between now and then--lest history repeat itself.

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