It's Gore Vs. Gore And Gore Is Losing

Why is Al Gore like Iridium? He has lots of balls in the air, promotes cutting-edge technology--and is headed for Chapter 11. -- Joke making the rounds in Washington

Forgive Tony Coelho if he doesn't chuckle at comparisons between his candidate and the failed satellite venture. The ex-California congressman was tapped in May to head the drifting Gore campaign. Coelho--whose last job was selling units and laying off employees as CEO of engineering firm ICF Kaiser International Inc.--got right to work. He hired busloads of media mavens and pollsters. And he forced Gore to zero in on the core issues of prosperity, improving education and health care, and fixing pensions.

Just one problem: While the new management at Gore Inc. pored over flowcharts, customers flocked to Bradley's department store. New polls show the Veep in a virtual dead heat with ex-New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley in New Hampshire and New York.

Political pros now caution that unless Gore quickly changes public perceptions, the once lightly regarded Bradley insurgency could wreck Gore's plans to roll to the nomination. "This thing is starting to slip away," frets one operative with close ties to the First Family.

Coelho is putting in 14-hour days, but his exertions haven't hiked Gore's stock yet. "Tony has done some good things, but the problem is Gore," says a party consultant. "He looks more and more like [failed '72 front-runner] Ed Muskie--the dutiful plodder with Establishment support but no grassroots backing."

A bit apocalyptic, perhaps, considering that the Iowa caucuses aren't until Jan. 31. But there's no doubt that Gore's woes run deep. Among them:

-- The wrong stuff. Despite unprecedented responsibilities in foreign affairs and technology policy, Gore still isn't seen as Presidential. In an ABC News-Washington Post survey released on Sept. 7, only 38% saw him as "a strong leader."

-- The Clinton curse. Revulsion over White House scandals is hurting. A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll taken on Sept. 10-14 found that, by a 52% to 27% margin, the Clinton connection made voters less likely to pull the lever for Al.

-- Bush-whacked. With the Texas GOP governor cruising, Gore's iffy general-election prospects have some Democrats spooked. While Bush holds a 17% lead over the Veep, Bradley cuts that margin in half, according to an NBC News poll. Because Gore-Bradley policy differences are slight, party regulars might be tempted to change horses. "If Gore looks like he can't put it together, Bradley would be acceptable to virtually all Democrats," says Emory University political scientist Merle Black.

Coelho, of course, has a turnaround plan. He's speeding up endorsements by national and local pols. Ground troops are being rushed to New Hampshire and other trouble spots. And he has scrapped the "quick kill" scenario, girding instead for a protracted struggle to painstakingly pile up delegates. The Holy Grail: votes of 800 party leaders who have automatic seats at the convention and account for 18% of the nominating tally.

"Tony realizes we're in for a tough fight against a very credible candidate in the form of Bradley," says Gore delegate-counter Tad Devine. "You're going to see some powerful stuff from our side." What's more, the Gore camp thinks that as Bradley fills in details of his "big ideas" agenda, his appeal will wane.

Still, Gore must move fast. Unless he finds his footing, political pros say even the best ministrations of Coelho & Co. won't save his campaign.