Gore's slip of the lip could prove costly


WASHINGTON -- The endorsement of House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt is but another stop on what seems to be Vice President Al Gore's inexorable march to the Democratic presidential nomination next year.

Even before he has declared his candidacy in a formal way, the vice president has taken de facto control of all the party's machinery and won the endorsement of key players at all levels of the party. He is enjoying the kind of run experienced by Sen. Edmund S. Muskie in 1972 and by former Vice President Walter F. Mondale in 1984.

But, as you may recall, Muskie didn't even win the nomination and Mr. Mondale only managed to win because of the mistakes of his prime challenger, Gary Hart. Being the choice of the party establishment puts you into the first tier of candidates in either party, but it is no guarantee of success.

What Mr. Gore should be concerned about is avoiding any more of these small misstatements like his claim in an interview the other day, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet."

As it happened, the Defense Department began funding the Internet in 1969, eight years before Mr. Gore was elected to Congress. Mr. Gore can claim accurately to have been a leading advocate and sponsor of the Internet, just as he was a leader in many technological and scientific areas while in Congress. But the use of the word "creating" allowed Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to claim he had "created" the paper clip.

This is obviously a trivial little dustup. Mr. Gore wasn't careful in his use of language, and the Republicans made a federal case out of it. The presidency is too important to be decided on issues as insubstantial as this one.

True enough. But the image of any politician is based on a long series of episodes in which voters see him in action. And the slip is just the kind of thing the press and political opponents will dredge up and throw in Mr. Gore's face. The media will look for a possible "pattern" of misstatements by this candidate who didn't know that the meeting at the Buddhist temple was a fund-raiser.

Mr. Gore cannot afford that kind of thing. His principal credential as a candidate is his service as the vice president under President Clinton, who already has demonstrated that a pattern of lying about small things can destroy your credibility, if not necessarily your performance ratings. Mr. Gore wants some of the credit for the administration's accomplishments and the condition of the economy. But he doesn't want anyone to believe he is Slick Al trying to succeed Slick Willie.

The Gephardt endorsement is a valuable one for Mr. Gore, however. It can make it easier for some labor unions to go along with the vice president despite their differences on trade. And it surely will encourage House Democrats to get on board early.

How it plays with the most devoted liberals in the party is another question. Some of them unquestionably will follow Mr. Gephardt's lead. But others will wait and see how the challenge from Bill Bradley develops.

The root question, however, is how much value to attach to endorsements. It obviously helps to have a Gephardt behind you when you are talking to the AFL-CIO. The most important endorsement Mr. Gore may have received is the one that has come in New Hampshire from William Shaheen, the former federal judge who is the husband of the popular Gov. Jeannie Shaheen.

But ordinary voters in primaries don't often make two-step decisions and decide to vote for Candidate A because Congressman B says he's a good choice. Instead, they make up their minds on the impressions they have formed from many pieces of information, including but not limited to endorsements.

If the opinion polls are right, this attitude on the part of voters may be especially pronounced when they think so poorly of politicians in general. For Democrats in that class, Mr. Bradley may be much more attractive than the darling of the heavyweights. What matters the most -- for Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley -- is how they conduct themselves in the next year.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 3/19/99

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