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Jewish World Review July 3, 2000/ 30 Sivan, 5760


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Gore's Hail Mary debates -- A POLITICAL JOURNALIST who writes for a monthly can beat a deadline, but the story often won't appear for six weeks-maybe more-after it's been researched, line-edited and factchecked. As a result, his or her piece, especially in an election year, is often dated by the time it hits the newsstands. Such is the case with an excellent article by Father James Fallows in the July issue of The Atlantic Monthly, "An Acquired Taste: How Al Gore Learned to Love the Jugular," a thorough examination of the Vice President's well-deserved reputation as a tenacious debater.

Fallows spent hours in Nashville watching videos of Gore's debates from 1987 until this year's matches with Bill Bradley; with the exception of his lackluster performance against Dan Quayle in '92-Fallows is the scarce liberal with the honesty to admit that Quayle won that encounter-he saw Gore transform from a youthful idealist to a "heavy-lidded" pragmatist who'll do anything to win. He writes of Gore dismantling Dick Gephardt in the '88 campaign; of his making "sly" jokes at Jesse Jackson's expense in the same year; of his obliterating Ross Perot over NAFTA by making the Texan pipsqueak lose his temper; and of his completely overwhelming an ill-prepared Jack Kemp in 1996.

Early in the 2000 campaign, Gore nuked an aloof Bradley, shamelessly distorting the former Senator's healthcare proposals and needling him about race relations, a hot button for this year's Adlai Stevenson.

Bradley, in a New Hampshire debate last January, said to moderator Peter Jennings: "The one that was most particularly offensive to me was when [Gore] said in this campaign that I was going to hurt African-Americans, Latinos, with the healthcare program that I have offered... To say to me, who's had the deep commitment to the issue of racial unity in this country since I started in politics, that I would go out and hurt African-Americans and Latinos consciously as a part of a policy, I think really offended me."

Gore shrugged. The damage was done: Bradley looked like a whiner and never recovered.

It's a safe bet that Fallows will vote for Gore and also thinks that he'll defeat George W. Bush in November. Having immersed himself in Gore's forensics history, he's put a disproportionate value on the three meetings the candidates will have this fall, low-key attractions that will be overshadowed by the Olympics, the World Series and the new tv shows. He said as much last Sunday, June 25, on Meet the Press. Fallows concludes his Atlantic essay: "Having studied Al Gore's record in some detail, I now respect his capacities more and like him less... [Gore's] appeal starts and ends with grinding out a win the hard way."

As fascinating as Fallows' article was-it's one of the most impressive presidential election pieces of the year-the timing is just off. It's now instant history instead of a topic that's current. For example, not once does Fallows mention Ralph Nader. That's understandable, since Mr. Integrity has only recently begun to register in the polls and on the national media's radar. But the fact is that Nader has a chance of winning at least five percent of the vote in November-every single ballot coming from Gore's hide or cast by people who would've stayed home, like union workers who feel betrayed by the Veep-and that total won't be spread evenly across the country. Instead, Nader will poll well in California, Washington, Oregon, New York, Minnesota, New Mexico and Wisconsin, all states that Gore needs to win. Gore has a lock on New York, but all the rest, if Nader mounts the vigorous effort he now promises, could tip to Bush.


I don't agree with a word Nader says, but he's an admirable man in many respects. He appears honest, and is articulate and refreshingly blunt. Asked by Tim Russert on Meet the Press if he was worried about spoiling Gore's chances, Nader said of course not. It makes sense: Democrats who are true liberals ought to vote for Nader, even knowing that Bush will win as a result. What's four years without the White House? A recession or foreign policy disaster could weaken a President Bush in 2004; without the Clinton-Gore baggage, the Democrats could then nominate a clean candidate who'd reclaim the Oval Office.

Fallows also doesn't take into account the terrible campaign Gore has run since dispatching Bradley in the spring. A brief recap: the Elian Gonzalez pandering; Tony Coelho; the Social Security flip-flop; a new tax cut that suddenly isn't a "risky scheme"; and the overshadowing presence of Bill Clinton, who just can't give up the spotlight.

Conventional wisdom says that Clinton will recede into the background once the Democratic Convention is over, but don't bet on it. After all, can you think of anything more apt to energize the GOP base than a primetime address by Hillary Clinton? And possibly a speech by Rosie O'Donnell?

Gore's problem of the week is his weasel of a spokesman Chris Lehane. After Lehane's incredibly asinine statements since last Tuesday, I doubt he'll still be with the campaign in a couple of weeks. Lehane was always out of his depth, but his attack on Sen. Arlen Specter, who revealed that Gore might be the subject of a special investigator looking into the '96 Clinton-Gore fundraising violations, was the work of a man on a kamikaze mission. Specter, who, to his everlasting shame, didn't even vote to convict Clinton on impeachment charges, is hardly a partisan Republican of the Tom DeLay/Dick Armey variety.

Lehane released this statement on June 27: "Last week, Senator Arlen Specter orchestrated a crude McCarthy-like effort to cover up various news reports about George W. Bush's connections to big oil by making public a confidential Justice Department matter. Maybe that is not surprising given the slick connections Bush and Specter have to big oil... Arlen Specter, Dan Burton and their Congressional cronies have turned the Congress into a scandal-industrial complex designed to manufacture and create partisan scandals and inflict political damage on the Vice President a mere four months before voters go to the polls.

It's clear for all to see that this constitutes Republican skullduggery, GOP chicanery and Republican dirty tricks."

Lehane added that Bush is "CEO" of his imagined "scandal-industrial complex."

Specter has demanded an apology from Gore, saying, "If your campaign intends to continue your character assassination of me, I think you ought to be man enough to say it yourself."

Oh, my. Calling January's version of Al Gore, the alpha male. On June 28, Bush said at a press conference, clearly delighted at Lehane's juvenile comments: "[Voters] are sick of this kind of finger-pointing and calling names and trying to divert attention. If they want four more years of Clinton-Gore and mindless name-calling like this person just did then I'm not the right person. If they want something different, a new attitude, they ought to give me a chance to be president."

And that's Gore's problem in a nutshell: despite the economy, for which he justifiably receives little credit, the country simply wants everyone associated with the Clinton administration to vanish. They'll wait for the made-for-tv miniseries in 2002. That's why Bush is leading in the polls, scoring much higher on "leadership" questions, and has erased the gender gap that elected Bill Clinton twice. People don't like Gore, and now that his campaign is in a shambles, which will force him to wage a negative, scorched-earth advertising blitz this fall, his popularity ratings aren't apt to improve.

Democrats say that it's still early in the election cycle and that Gore isn't sweating. But you know he is. Because it's almost July and getting closer to November every day; unless a giant scandal engulfs Bush or he forgets the name of Britain's prime minister in a debate, this is now his election to lose.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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