WASHINGTON -- It is a mistake to read too much into the endorsements politicians collect from other politicians. Most voters are not as impressed as the politicians might imagine.
But Al Gore can draw some encouragement from the declaration of support he has received from Gov. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. She is a popular Democrat who has demonstrated a strong appeal to independents, a voting bloc that opinion polls show has been leaning strongly toward Bill Bradley.
The timing of the endorsement suggests, however, that the Gore campaign is reacting defensively. It has never been any secret that Ms. Shaheen would support Mr. Gore, to whom she owed a debt for his help in her campaigns to win and hold a governorship that Democrats rarely capture.
Also, Ms. Shaheen's husband, Bill, is state chairman of the Gore campaign.
But Democrats in a position to know said the original plan was for the governor to deliver the endorsement shortly before the Feb. 1 primary, meaning at a time when more voters would be deciding on their choices. The decision to announce her support now is clearly a case of Mr. Gore trying to stop the bleeding as opinion polls show Mr. Bradley with a widening lead in the primary.
Coming on the heels of the AFL-CIO endorsement last week, the Shaheen endorsement is designed to reinforce the impression that the vice president's campaign is gaining momentum, although it is hard to imagine anyone buying that notion right now.
There is, of course, a lot of political history defining the limits on the value of endorsements. Those with long memories recall how then-Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine piled up endorsements all through the winter before the 1972 campaign, only to be defeated for the nomination.
Gipper strikes out
Equally striking was the Republican experience in 1986, when a popular president, Ronald Reagan, took to the road to endorse five incumbent Southern GOP senators. Despite his personal appeals, all five were defeated.
But endorsements can be valuable in building a floor under a candidacy. In 1984, for example, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale lost the New Hampshire primary to then-Sen. Gary Hart, but survived to win the Democratic nomination in part because so much of the party establishment had a stake in his success.
In New Hampshire, the endorsement of governors has been helpful in the past. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter fended off a primary challenge from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy with the help of Gov. Hugh Gallen. In 1988, Vice President George Bush won the GOP primary with the active help of Gov. John Sununu.
But Ms. Shaheen's endorsement, as well as that of other leading Democrats in the state, doesn't confront the principal problems Mr. Gore must overcome to win the primary and the nomination.
One factor, essentially beyond the vice president's control, is Mr. Gore's identification with President Clinton and an administration that has worn out its welcome despite the remarkable success of its economic policies.
The new Gore
The most pressing imperative for Mr. Gore, however, is changing his own image with the voters. The vice president is frantically trying to accomplish that transformation by such things as moving his campaign headquarters to Nashville, Tenn., and adopting a new, more free-wheeling style on the stump. He even has a newly honed message that is more biographical and personal. And he has begun taking shots at Mr. Bradley, taxing him particularly with a failure to "stay and fight" in the Senate after the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994.
These initiatives have played to a sympathetic audience in the news media. But, so far, opinion polls indicate that the public apparently isn't as impressed with the new Al Gore as reporters are.
The operative question remains the same as it has been from the outset: Are the voters so alienated by the performance of politicians that they will be looking for someone perceived as an outsider? Or, put another way, can Mr. Bradley defeat an incumbent vice president by refusing to run a conventional campaign?
If the answer is that the prevailing mood in the electorate is reaction against politics as usual, then Mr. Gore's endorsements, even the one from Ms. Shaheen, are irrelevant.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.