Gore's campaign falters as Bush opens up a lead

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The Independent US

Al Gore was set to share the political stage last night with Bill and Hillary Clinton at a Democratic Party fund-raising event in New York.

It was the first time that the Vice-President, who is the Democrats' presidential nominee,Mrs Clinton, who is running for the Senate in New York, and the President had appeared side-by-side since the presidential campaign proper began.

Mr Gore has started appearing in public with Mr Clinton again after trying to separate himself from the president during the primary season. Even though Mr Clinton is careful not to upstage him, Mr Gore is rarely at his best on such occasions.

But last night's fund-raiser comes at a particularly delicate juncture for Mr Gore.

For the first time since securing his party's presidential nomination, Mr Gore is running behind his Republican rival, George W Bush, in most opinion polls. What is more, the political troubles that he surmounted to come from behind to beat Bill Bradley into submission, are returning to haunt him, raising new doubts about his capacity to win the presidency in November.

Meanwhile Mr Bush has been touring the country, making himself regularly available to the media.

He has also moved towards the political centre without apparently sacrificing the support of the right of his party.

Mr Bush has made comprehensive proposals for raising education standards and - in a bold effort to steal some of his opponent's trump cards - a plan to tackle the problem of the 44 million Americans who have no health insurance coverage.

The latest poll puts Mr Bush nine points ahead of Mr Gore, the widest gap yet. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mr Bush also has the edge among women voters, effectively cancelling the considerable 'gender gap' advantage Mr Gore inherited from Mr Clinton.

With months to go before the election, these figures must be treated with caution.

But they will be unwelcome news for Mr Gore. The Vice-President was thought to have emerged from the primary season stronger than Mr Bush, whose bruising fight with Mr McCain had taken its toll. Now, just six weeks after the nominations were effectively sealed, Mr Gore finds himself behind.

Like Mr Bush, Mr Gore has recently revamped his campaign team with a view to the contest to come. As his campaign against Mr Bradley showed, he can be at his political best when he is forced to fight.

But unlike Mr Bush, he has not - except perhaps in his ambivalence in the Elian Gonzalez case - made great efforts to court constituencies beyond the traditional Democratic ones, and has allowed Mr Bush to take the policy initiative.

He has also suffered by keeping his distance from the media. While Mr Bush has become more media-friendly, until last Friday Mr Gore had given no press conferences for more than two months. Even then, his appearance was not announced in advance, took place far from Washington, and followed an announcement hours earlier that he had been questioned in the ongoing investigation into campaign funding irregularities in 1996.

That disclosure did nothing to counter the impression that Mr Gore feels threatened by the campaign funding scandal.

On the same day, Mr Bush was rolling out unchallenged a health insurance plan similar in many respects to that offered by Mr Bradley last year.

Despite flaws in the proposals, Mr Gore had given the Bush health plan a free run, hoping perhaps to shred it more publicly in televised debates - debates which, despite regular goading from Mr Gore, Mr Bush has refused to join.