Gaffes threaten Gore's campaign

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VICE-PRESIDENT Al Gore takes a day-long swing through the key election states of New Hampshire and Iowa today in an effort to narrow the gap that has already opened up between himself and leading Republican candidates.

Although Mr Gore has only one declared rival for the Democratic nomination in next year's presidential race, Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, the impetus that has already built up behind two of the 10 Republican contenders, especially George W Bush of Texas, is worrying state Democratic Party organisations.

Polls show Mr Bush leading Mr Gore by almost two to one,and forecast that if an election were held now, not only Mr Bush, but the second favoured Republican candidate, Elizabeth Dole, could beat him.

These are, of course, early days. He will have behind him the full weight of the Democratic Party machine, and the campaigning might of the President - and Mr Clinton wants his loyal lieutenant to get the best possible start. But Mr Gore has a tendency to make gaffes. And while he has been working hard to remedy two of his long-standing defects - his difficulties in "connecting" with the voters and his "woodenness" in public, the bad luck that he makes himself may prove harder to overcome.

Last week Mr Gore presented two populist policy initiatives from the White House, flanked by the top experts in the field. He talked about measures to reduce traffic congestion. He introduced proposals for simpler and clearer labelling on medicines (a preoccupation of the growing constituency of pensioners). He also had an extended interview on the cable network, CNN.

Then he blew it all by claiming to have been the impetus behind the Internet. Mr Gore might have been justified in claiming to have supported, even promoted, the Internet from the time he was a senator. But to have been the impetus behind it, or invented it? The response was ridicule.

The Republican Majority leader in the Senate, Trent Lott, sent out a spoof circular claiming to have invented the paper clip which, he said, had proved a force for "unity". Dick Armey, the Majority leader in the House, said that he could claim to have invented the national motorway system.

Al Gore's Internet gaffe will go down in the annals next to the occasion when, the day after a nationally watched basketball game, he spoke of Michael Jackson, when he meant the basketball player Michael Jordan. It fed the comedy talk shows for nights on end.

Mr Gore's position as Vice-President, his capacity to raise funds and his political lineage mean that his nomination is virtually assured. But gaffes like these raise doubts at the grassroots level not just about his political skill, but about whether, if nominated, he can win.

The US National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, defended his handling of the China spy allegations yesterday, insisting he had acted swiftly to address the likelihood that secrets had been stolen from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Eighties. Mr Berger said spending on counter- intelligence at the lab had been increased many times over between 1995 and now, but responsibility for investigating security breaches rested with the FBI and the CIA.