WASHINGTON -- Seeking to jump-start his lumbering presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore announced yesterday that he would move its headquarters from Washington to his home state of Tennessee, and he challenged his sole Democratic rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley, to a series of debates.
"It's a brand-new campaign," Gore said, acknowledging that Bradley's "competence and credibility" had pushed him into "a hard-fought competitive race."
"We can work together in these two Democratic campaigns to compete within the framework of what our founders really wanted to see in our representative democracy," Gore said.
The announcements were remarkable, considering that only a few months ago, Gore was widely expected to waltz to the Democratic presidential nomination next year.
Challenging a rival to debate, as Gore did yesterday, is the typical move of an underdog, not a vice president running with the president's enthusiastic backing and the support of the party establishment. Until yesterday, Gore had not mentioned Bradley's name publicly since the campaign began.
Traditionally, presidents and vice presidents have used the trappings of their positions -- and their Washington power base -- to mount their campaigns, stressing the continuity of power and the experience of office.
But in recent weeks, Bradley's poll ratings have risen to the point where he matches Gore in the key states of New Hampshire and New York. He has also garnered glowing media coverage, though he still trails Gore in fund-raising and in national polls.
The vice president has struggled to establish a political identity independent of President Clinton's while still claiming some credit for the economic achievements of the Clinton-Gore administration.
"The trappings of being vice president are hurting us," said Donna Brazile, Gore's national political director.
Bradley reacted to Gore's debate challenge with the air of a front-runner, refusing to say whether he would debate the vice president.
"I haven't made it a habit to respond to every change of tactic by the vice president's campaign," Bradley said in California. "For the last 10 months, the vice president's campaign has been ignoring me, and now they want to debate me. I think we're making progress."
A candidate's frustration
Top Gore advisers conceded that the vice president has been frustrated by his campaign staff's performance.
"He is out there connecting with the people, feeling a sense that he is the candidate that is reaching them," said a close Gore adviser. "He wanted a sense that the campaign was doing the same thing, backing him up wholly."
Roy Neel, a longtime Gore adviser, agreed.
"You don't experience these poll numbers and this kind of brutal press without feeling frustrated," said Neel, who ran Gore's vice presidential campaign from Little Rock, Ark., in 1992. "You've got to shake it up. You've got to do something."
The move to Nashville, Tenn., next week will pare down a 90-person Washington staff that many have considered bloated. Some Gore aides will not be willing to move to Nashville.
Mary Matalin, a Republican consultant, said the move would put some distance between the campaign and a coterie of high-priced Gore consultants who still work as lobbyists and have divided loyalties.
"The problem that Gore has is he's got all these K Street consultants whose loyalties lie elsewhere," said Matalin, who worked on the George Bush presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1992. "They've always got in the back of their minds, 'Is this going to hurt my clients?' This is a face-saving device to get rid of the crowd that is not advancing them."
Tony Coelho, Gore's campaign manager, said he will move to Tennessee, as will Carter Eskew, a top adviser.
Robert Squier, a media consultant who has feuded with Eskew over tactics in the Gore campaign, will not make the move, a Squier aide said.
Leaner and tougher
"We anticipate the group in Nashville will be leaner and, hopefully, tougher," Coelho said.
Gore aides hope that by moving the campaign "out of the Beltway and into the heartland," as Gore put it, the vice president will refocus the staff and remove aides from the distractions of Washington and the pundits and reporters who have bedeviled them.
"We can't get our message out," Brazile said. "The Beltway filter is as thick as the Potomac when it's muddy."
The vice president's advisers hope the move will help remove Gore from the shadow of Clinton and help distance him from a White House that, according to recent polls, many Americans say they are weary of.
Gore's riskier move might have been challenging Bradley to debate a range of issues, such as education, health care, the environment, defense and crime.
In national polls, Bradley has crept up from a 45-point deficit among Democratic voters since the spring, but he still trails Gore by more than 20 points, said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster.
"What was once a one-sided contest has moved into the realm of competitive," Hart said. "But to suggest that, nationally, Gore is anything but the front-runner would be a mistake."
Gore's position as vice president has given him an institutional megaphone that Bradley lacks, and he has more money than Bradley to broadcast his message.
The Gore campaign announced last night that it had raised $6.5 million in the third quarter, bringing the year's total to about $24 million. That should bring an infusion of $13.5 million in federal matching funds in January.
The Bradley campaign has not released its most recent figures, but its second-quarter numbers lagged behind Gore's.
Gore's proposal for debates, Hart said, would help Bradley by placing the two candidates before the voters on equal footing.
"It's going against the conventional wisdom," he said. "But then again, it's probably not a bad time for Gore to go against the conventional wisdom."
The vice president put it in loftier terms. The debates, he said, would "lift our democracy and make of this campaign a chance for our country to rekindle the spirit of democracy and to show that a campaign can be an ennobling experience."
In some sense, Gore was calling Bradley's bluff. Last weekend, Bradley asked Democratic officials to put aside Gore's institutional advantages and allow the campaign to be "a spirited debate of ideas."
"It's time for this to become a real, serious race and not just a beauty contest," Neel said.
Gore advisers are confident of the vice president's debating skills. He was widely perceived to have been the winner in his showdowns with the Republican vice presidential candidates Dan Quayle in 1992 and Jack Kemp in 1996, and with Ross Perot over the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. And, they said, one-on-one contests would do more to deflate the Bradley mystique than to build him up.
"We don't have to worry about elevating him; he is elevated," Neel said of Bradley, pointing to the news media's coverage of him. "You guys have elevated him."
Anita Dunn, a senior Bradley consultant, said the candidate would be appearing with Gore for town hall meetings. The first such meeting is planned for Oct. 27 in New Hampshire.
But she avoided agreeing to a formal series of debates proposed by Gore, saying: "Whether one campaign can dictate the timing is another question.
"Look," Dunn said, "the story today is not about us. It's about the Gore campaign changing its tactics, strategy and location -- again."
Pub Date: 9/30/99