Is Al Gore Starting To Find His Sea Legs?

It's a muggy Sunday night, and Al Gore is struggling to cut through the din of 2,500 pro-Israel activists schmoozing in a Washington ballroom. "Yes, I still believe in miracles," he intones. "The miracle of faith, the miracle of the imagination...." Then Gore launches into a platitude-laced speech designed to bring the members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to their feet. It draws only polite applause. "I expected some emotion," shrugs one AIPAC member as the crowd makes a beeline for the exit.

No wonder the Veep is suddenly stressing his spirituality. Off and lurching in his Presidential bid, Gore has some Democratic pols muttering that he may need divine intervention to be competitive in 2000. "This campaign," frets one, "has the smell of death about it."

Actually, it's early, and Gore is suffering the hazing Vice-Presidents endure as they move from funeral-hopping flunky to big-time contender. On May 20, Gore showed why he can't be counted out: He stunned the GOP Right--and scored points with soccer moms--with a tie-breaking Senate vote for a gun-control measure.

DOG-TIRED. Still, it's not hard to see why Clinton worries about his protege. Despite a sizzling economy, many swing voters view Gore as a visionless hack tainted by Clinton-era sleaze--from the '96 campaign-finance scandal, which included Gore's famous Buddhist Temple fund-raiser, to the current flap over China's theft of nuclear secrets. In a May 12-16 Pew Research Center poll, 49% of registered voters say there's "no chance" they'll vote for Gore. "His biggest problem isn't that he's boring," sighs an adviser. "It's that people are dog-tired of Clinton."

Meanwhile, Gore's rival for the nomination, ex-New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, is winning respect with strong fund-raising and good showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. Gore hopes to halt Bradley's boomlet by locking up Establishment support in early primary states and hammering away at the vagueness of Bradley's positions.

Assuming Gore gets past Dollar Bill, he faces a potentially serious problem in the general election. Right now, the Veep gets creamed in matchups with GOP front-runner George W. Bush. In a May 14 Newsweek poll, he trailed the Texas governor 42% to 51%.

Gore has reacted by shaking up his team, tapping veteran pol Tony Coelho. "Tony is going to get Gore to stop managing his own campaign," says an adviser. That means hiring more pros and curbing the Veep's meandering roundtable strategy sessions.

Gore is also struggling to change his image as a bland techno-wonk. Recently, he delivered a major address on education that included a plan for a new universal preschool program. On May 24, he came out for federal aid to religious social-welfare organizations, a move meant to deflect Bush's stress on the role of churches in combating poverty. Liberals, however, saw it as a Clinton-size pander, and the American Civil Liberties Union issued a sharp rebuke.

If all this works, aides say--and Bush gets roughed up by GOP rivals and the media--Gore can still regain his footing. "Gore lacks Clinton's touch," says a Clintonite. "But maybe dull isn't bad. People may come to realize that Al Gore is a safe vote for continuing Clinton policies."

To keep his spring zephyr of momentum going, the Veep will have to do more than appear as a sanitized Clinton. "Micro-issues won't do it," says a top Democratic pol. "To connect, he's going to have to talk about big stuff like education and the economy." That--and erase six years of negative public impressions about his leadership abilities. For the maven of Reinventing Government, Gore's biggest challenge will be reinventing himself.

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