Is Al Gore The New Comeback Kid?

Four months can be a lifetime in politics. Just ask Al Gore. Last fall, the Vice-President was facing both a cash crunch and a vigorous primary challenge from insurgent Bill Bradley. And he lagged far behind Republican front-runner George W. Bush. But as the winter chill prepares to give way to spring, Gore seems to have experienced a rapid political rebirth that few pundits thought possible.

Having beaten Bradley in Iowa and New Hampshire, Gore is poised to dispatch his rival in the 15-state showdown on Mar. 7. And instead of being broke and politically wounded, Gore is stronger than ever. For the first time in Campaign 2000, a national survey shows him moving ahead of Bush. In a Zogby America poll conducted on Feb. 4-6, the Veep edges out George W. by 45% to 43%, after trailing by 22 percentage points as recently as mid-December.

What changed? Gore's makeover is both stylistic and substantive. Long derided as robotic and cautious, he is now more relaxed and spontaneous in town-hall meetings with undecided voters. And after struggling to articulate a compelling campaign theme (remember "pragmatic idealism"?), Gore seems to have hit on one that resonates. He's running as a scrappy fighter for working families who's also the safest bet to maintain the nation's record-shattering prosperity. "The Bradley challenge has been the best thing that could have happened to Gore," says American University political scientist James A. Thurber.

Recent polls reflect the fact that Gore has been forced to confront his shortcomings and hone his message. Gore, once rejected by moderates and independents, has surged ahead of Bush in both categories, according to the Zogby survey, though he still lags behind Arizona Senator John McCain among these groups. The Veep also has made headway with the union rank-and-file, who were slow to embrace his candidacy despite an early AFL-CIO endorsement. Labor activists visited some 5,000 union households in New Hampshire and leafletted worksites for eight weeks. The result? Labor families provided Gore's narrow margin of victory. Union voters now favor him by a double-digit margin nationwide.

While the Gore campaign still faces cash-flow problems because of profligate spending in '99, there's room for a trace of optimism now. "We're a poor campaign with a rich message," says campaign manager Donna Brazile. On the Republican side, Bush has been unexpectedly forced to spend more than two-thirds of his $70 million war chest in the face of a surprisingly strong challenge from McCain. And Gore can ratchet down his spending if the Bradley threat diminishes further.

STILL CAUTIOUS. What's more, President Clinton and the Democratic National Committee are cooking up a soft-money fund-raising fest to raise millions to finance issue ads on behalf of the party's nominee, similar to the air war that buried Bob Dole in '96. Meanwhile, Gore allies in organized labor and the environmental movement are fielding their own efforts to plug the Vice-President and bash the Republicans.

Despite Gore's reversal of fortune, there's reason for caution at his headquarters in Nashville. The Veep's close ties to Clinton continue to be more burden than benefit. And he's still trailing both Republicans in suburbia and in the Midwest battleground, where the election is likely to be determined.

Besides, there's plenty of time for him to stumble again. "Nine months is an eternity in politics," notes National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). Al Gore is hoping he has already lived through his eternity this election season.

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