HOW SEVERE IS THE HEALTH care crisis? I'll tell you, said Al Gore during a speech at a New Hampshire hospital recently. Thanks to the greed and unchecked power of the pharmaceutical industry, many Americans must leave the country in order to find affordable life-sustaining drugs. "Does anybody here go to Canada to buy prescriptions?" Gore asked the crowd. No one said a word. At last a woman near the back raised her hand. Actually, the woman explained, she personally had never bought medicine in Canada, but "my babysitter does." Or may have. The woman wasn't absolutely sure. Gore nodded. You could almost see him making a mental note never to ask the Canada question again. "Maybe you hear more about it in the news media than it actually happens," he conceded.

Gore shouldn't have to have exchanges like this. It should be easy for him to make the case that during the seven years he has been vice president the state of the nation has improved dramatically. The stock market is over 11,000. Unemployment has all but disappeared. Foreign threats, such as they are, barely register with the voting public. Gore ought to be able to run for president on a stay-the-course platform: Vote for me and keep a good thing going. Instead, here he is on a weekday morning trying to convince a roomful of polar fleece-clad yuppies that they are suffering terribly at the hands of Big Business. The high cost of prescription drugs may be a genuine burden for some people, but in Gore's hands the issue sounds comically small, like an Andy Rooney routine ("Prescription drugs -- don't you just hate going to Canada to buy them?").

Not that it really mattered. Gore's real point was not that prescription drugs are too expensive to buy, but that his challenger for the Democratic nomination -- Bill Bradley, resident of the pharmaceutical industry's home state, the Senator from Merck -- would do nothing to make them more affordable. Gore spent perhaps a third of his speech attacking Bradley's health care proposal. Bradley's plan, he told the audience, is both recklessly profligate and heartlessly stingy. At a cost of at least $ 1 trillion, it is a wild-eyed spending scheme that would wipe out the budget surplus and imperil Medicare. At the same time, Gore said, Bradley's plan "would require seniors to spend $ 800 of their own money before getting one penny" for prescription drugs.

As Gore spoke, his aides canvassed the room distributing a handout, still warm from the copier, that accused Bradley of seeking to "put millions of America's most vulnerable at risk." A short time later, aides reappeared with a new sheet of talking points, this one hammering Bradley on campaign finance reform. In 1990, it said, a newspaper described Bradley's reelection effort as among the "year's most nauseating examples of campaign excess." In 1997 and 1998, the Gore campaign charged, "Bradley pocketed millions of dollars from special interest groups," mostly in fees for speeches.

Gore kept up his assaults on Bradley throughout the day. At one point he even attacked Bradley for resenting his attacks. "Some of his campaign workers think I shouldn't raise questions about his platform," Gore told one audience. "That's what democracy is all about."

Doesn't rhetoric like this diminish Gore? "There's an elite tendency to complain about it," says Bob Shrum, Gore's chief message consultant in Washington. Columnists and television commentators, Shrum says, "seem to think somehow this is about patty cake, or that we're supposed to have some kind of rarefied discussion in the sky."

Ordinary people, by contrast, appreciate it when Gore "draws issue comparisons. People don't think it's negative to talk about the difference between your health care policy and his health care policy, your education policy, his education policy. How the hell are voters supposed to make up their minds?" In any case, says Shrum, going after Bradley "has brought focus and definition to what was a pretty unfocused campaign."

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.

Next Page