Suddenly, The New Al Gore Is Looking A Lot Like The Old Al Gore

It took months of pounding on hapless rival Bill Bradley, a reworked wardrobe, dozens of town meetings, and a swaggering new attitude. But when his Presidential campaign hit its stride in March, Al Gore seemed transformed into a contender. Finally, after trailing for months, he passed GOP nominee-in-waiting George W. Bush in the polls. But springtime has turned out to be fleeting for Gore. His polls have headed south. A glitzy Hollywood appearance with Bill Clinton at a fund-raiser hosted by DreamWorks mogul David Geffen, served mainly to highlight the old klutziness. And George W.'s attempt to horn in on Al's centrist turf--health care, housing aid, and tax relief for working moms--is paying off.

There is no sign of panic in Goreland. But now that his poll lead has turned into a deficit of up to nine points, Gore has to be wondering what he must do to stop Bush from crowding into the center--and picking off crucial support from women and independents. "Bush is doing a better job of playing the game now," says one concerned Democratic consultant. "They need a new strategy."

MIAMI MISCUE. What's the matter with Al? For one thing, the primary battle between Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain came to an abrupt end--and with it, McCain's cutting portrayal of Bush as a far-right featherweight, defined by his alliance with religious conservatives and a dicey, $1.7 trillion tax cut. Now, Bush has morphed into a free-spending social engineer. In recent weeks, he has unveiled a $42 billion family health-care tax credit, a $4.3 billion plan for migrant and inner-city health centers, a $1.7 billion affordable-housing initiative, and $13 billion in new education spending.

A highly publicized Gore miscue has made matters worse. In hopes of boosting his chances for Florida's 25 electoral votes, he made a splashy break from the White House to call for permanent U.S. residency for 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez. But to many, says University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan, Gore seems like "an opportunist who's willing to be all things to all people."

While Bush gets good press for his compassion push, the Veep's slashing attacks on the Texas governor's record have yet to draw blood. "The problem is that he is perceived as an old-time pol," says Democratic media consultant Dane Strother. "I would have surrogates draw the distinctions, and I would have Gore take the high road."

Gore aides say they're unfazed by the downdraft. Gore will redouble efforts to home in on the economy, which he considers his best issue. To stress that Gore-style fiscal discipline is the key to continued prosperity, he plans a major economic policy address on Apr. 25 in New York.

"VIRTUAL DEBATE." At the same time, Democratic pols will step up efforts to undermine Bush's credibility by taking a page from his dad's 1992 playbook, portraying George W. as a failed governor of a Southern state. In coming months, they plan to highlight Texas' bottom-of-the-barrel rankings in pollution, child health care, and malnutrition. "The guy's afraid to debate, so we're going to have a virtual debate," says Gore media adviser Bob Shrum. The Bushies are bracing for the assault but think it's a loser. Says chief strategist Karl Rove: "Gore's not very credible, and his arguments run counter to people's perceptions [of Bush]."

Ultimately, the key factor might be beyond Gore's control: the economy. If consumer confidence remains high--and voters are optimistic about the future--it'll be hard to fire a sitting Vice-President. But if market gyrations trigger public anxiety, Bush-bashing alone won't work for Gore. So pardon Al if the numbers he's most interested in come from Dow Jones and Nasdaq--not Gallup and Harris.

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