The Magazine

The Politics of Bradley Destruction

Here's the new strategy of the Gore campaign -- attack, attack, attack

Jan 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 16 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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It's hard to argue with the last point. Gore has been at his nastiest but also at his best since beginning to draw "issue comparisons" with Bradley. Almost everything about Gore's stump performances has improved dramatically. His answers seem much less robotic and rehearsed than they once did. He has mastered his impulse to shout for emphasis and for the most part delivers his responses in a calm, this-is-your-captain-speaking tone. He no longer opens his speeches with jokes about his own dorkiness. After months of dieting and weight lifting, he looks fit and vigorous. (Of course all improvement is relative, and it's still possible to see why Gore's demeanor has been the subject of so many Jay Leno monologues. At an event in Nashua the other day, the advance team turned on Gore's lavaliere mike too soon. As he worked the crowd, Gore's words were broadcast to an otherwise silent room through the P.A. system. "How are you? Good to see you," he repeated again and again with painful stiffness.)

Most significant, Bradley's challenge has forced the Gore campaign to target its efforts more precisely. Bradley draws much of his support from independents and affluent, well-educated male Democrats. Gore has responded by affecting a self-consciously down-market style. He wears cowboy boots. His southern accent has returned in force. He has added a long series of anecdotes to his stump speech designed to highlight his working class roots. ("My mother was born a poor girl in East Tennessee at a time when poor girls were not supposed to dream much," or "She worked in an all-night coffee shop as a waitress for 25 cent tips," etc.) And he has worked to shore up his support among Democratic constituencies: women, labor, the elderly, environmentalists, and black voters. The "African Americans for Gore" website brags of his friendship with former senator Carol Moseley-Braun.

In other words, Gore has been pandering like crazy. The new strategy may be working. This fall, Gore's internal polling showed him at least 10 points behind Bradley in New Hampshire. Gore went on the attack and the gap has since narrowed. Bradley, meanwhile, hasn't returned fire very effectively. In December, Bradley staffers in New Hampshire, infuriated by Gore's demagoguery, passed out fliers to elderly voters in pharmacies warning of "Goreitis," a disease whose chief symptom is "uncontrollable lying." The Gore campaign immediately complained. Bradley, for reasons that are still not clear, forced his staff to apologize.

It turned out to be a mistake. Gore rarely makes an appearance these days without mentioning Bradley's apology, holding it up as proof that Bradley is running a negative campaign. Periodically, Bradley has responded by accusing Gore of waging the "politics of destruction." Each time, Gore has been able to pause, smile, and bash Bradley over the head with his own apology.

Gore believes he is on a roll, and his strategists make a plausible case for how he will keep it going. The key, they argue, is Iowa. A Gore victory there could have a significant effect on what happens in New Hampshire eight days later, both because it would give Gore the usual media-propelled momentum, and for a more complicated reason: To succeed in New Hampshire (where he is now slightly ahead in the polls), Bradley must win a large percentage of the state's independent voters. But if he loses in Iowa, many independents may conclude that a vote for Bradley would be wasted, and switch their support to John McCain instead. (In New Hampshire, independents can vote for either party's candidates in the primary.) Once Bradley loses New Hampshire, Gore strategists believe the race essentially will be over. "If we win New Hampshire," says one, "we take a hard look at going after him in New York, maybe try to take him out in Massachusetts, really get aggressive."

Gore is likely to remain aggressive no matter what happens. He is betting that, whatever the columnists say, rough politics works. It is a lesson, says one of his senior strategists, that Democrats have learned the hard way: "George Bush ran a brutal campaign against us in 1988, and those of us who went through that resolved that we would never go through that again, be on the receiving end of that again, be on the receiving end of that kind of damage. We would much rather be delivering it." And so they are.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.