Gore abandons Washington to revive campaign

IN A SIGN of growing panic, Al Gore, the leading White House candidate for the Democratic party, has moved his tents out of Washington and challenged his chief rival to debate.

Bill Bradley, the slow-spoken former Senator from New Jersey, is giving Mr Gore a stiff run for his money. The vice-president's closeness to Bill Clinton seems to be hurting him, and his campaign team has often seemed to be poorly co-ordinated and reactive.

"It's a brand new campaign. It is a competitive, hard fought battle for the Democratic nomination," Mr Gore said in an attempt to reinject some life into the flagging effort.

Mr Gore said he was moving "the whole campaign lock, stock and barrel to Nashville so we can get closer to the American people, closer to the grass-roots, out of the beltway and into the heartland". Mr Gore's family ties are to Tennessee, although he has lived most of his life in Washington.

But it is not just the idea of the "beltway" - the road that encircles the capital, which many Americans feel cuts the city off from the real world - which is the problem.

"Every election I have won has been headquartered in Tennessee," he said. "Fourteen times I have gone to the voters of Tennessee." In an effort to improve his performance and cut costs, his staff will also be cut. His campaign chairman Tony Coelho and chief strategist Carter Eskew will move to Nashville; many others will not.

It is still very early in the campaign, but Mr Gore is doing much less well than a national figure and high elected official might expect. Recent polls show Mr Bradley leading Mr Gore in the early primary state of New Hampshire, and almost level with him in New York and Rhode Island, a solidly Democratic state.

Pat Moynihan, a senator from New York state, has backed Mr Bradley, and with a crushing put-down of the vice-president. "Nothing is the matter with Mr Gore except that he can't be elected president," he said. Mr Bradley has picked up plenty of other high-profile endorsements and fund-raising figures released this week may well show him closing the financial gap on Mr Gore.

But the unmentionable problem for Mr Gore may be closer to home than New York or Rhode Island. The president still commands a very high approval rating, but in opinion polls voters seem to be expressing a degree of "Clinton fatigue." Even if that is not true, Mr Gore is clearly seeking to distance himself from Mr Clinton's presidency.

If the move to the country was intended to show decisiveness, it may equally show panic. And it remains to be seen how Mr Gore appears when set against Nashville, the country music capital of America. He is widely seen as more of a string quartet man than a line dancer.

The debates, too, are risky. Mr Gore is smart on the issues, and clearly hopes he can outflank his opponent. But Mr Bradley will go into the debates as the underdog. Mr Bradley's staff said he would respond soon to the debate challenge. "I know Bill very well. I have a feeling he will accept this challenge," Mr Gore said.

Mr Bradley is a media favourite; reporters in Washington, however, are tired of Mr Gore and his staff. Time magazine featured Mr Bradley as "The Man Who Could Beat Gore" - as much a warning to the vice-president from the media elite as a forecast.

Mr Bradley can also be tough on the issues: earlier this week, he came up with a new health care plan, striding boldly into an area where the Mr Clinton has clearly failed. "There is no better example of the difference between the kinds of presidencies that we would lead than that comparison," said Mr Bradley. "I think that what he [Gore] proposed is definitely timid compared to what we have proposed."

But Mr Bradley is still cautious and realistic about his campaign. "Do I believe we have momentum?" he said recently. "No, I think we have a little traction."