The Washington Times

Bill Bradley has surged in polls coming out of New Hampshire, drawing even with Vice President Al Gore. Mr. Bradley’s standing in national polls has also been on the rise. How much trouble is the vice president in?

Well, it’s true that this is not the way Mr. Gore’s people imagined it. The thoughts of coronation in the air in winter 1996-97 following Mr. Clinton’s re-election – essentially, an uncontested Democratic primary starring Mr. Gore as the consensus candidate – are long gone. It is likewise true that Mr. Gore’s campaign has yet to find its footing. And polls do seem to indicate that Mr. Gore has a Bill Clinton problem.

But it is absurd to think at this point that the vice president is in serious danger of losing the nomination. Has anyone stopped to think about the magnitude of the earthquake in the Democratic Party that would be necessary for such a result?

Let’s start with the basics: peace and prosperity. Barring an economic downturn that forecasters do not see coming or an international setback that likewise has not yet appeared on the horizon, Al Gore has a record to run on and an enviable climate for a quasi-incumbent to run in. You can argue that the Clinton-Gore team has little to do with this peace and prosperity, but let’s face it, you’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.

And while the Clinton scandals do cast an unwelcome shadow, this should perhaps be little more to Mr. Gore than a reminder that life is not perfect. Ask yourself this question: Would a sitting vice president take a recession and a Kosovo ground war quagmire in exchange for a squeaky-clean president? Of course not. One might fairly say that the premier challenge for a sitting vice president who wants to advance to the Oval Office is to figure out how to manage a smooth separation from the man he hopes to succeed. It’s hard to believe Mr. Gore’s people have not been thinking about this seriously.

Second, besides reinventing government, Mr. Gore has had little to do for the past seven years but prepare the political ground for his 2000 presidential bid. Vice presidents have plenty of time to practice making friends, and Mr. Gore has lots of them. The office of vice president may have a large symbolic component, but that symbolism can be deployed to great effect in bestowing political favors nationwide and therefore accumulating political chits. National cynicism and apathy notwithstanding, anywhere in America, it is, quite simply, a big deal when the vice president shows up.

Third, in the Clinton White House, Mr. Gore’s vice presidency is hardly merely symbolic. That’s not mainly because Mr. Gore has a larger say in policy than many vice presidents have had, although this is true. It’s because Mr. Clinton declared long ago that he wants Mr. Gore as the 2000 nominee.

Mr. Clinton didn’t have to do that. In 1988, Ronald Reagan declined to endorse George Bush before the GOP primaries. In giving Mr. Gore the nod as early as he did, Mr. Clinton essentially placed the White House political operation in service to Mr. Gore’s ambitions as well as the president’s own. The president of the United States has plenty of favors he can do, and he is doing them for Mr. Gore.

In fact, Mr. Clinton has so associated himself with Mr. Gore that the failure of the party to deliver the nomination to the vice president could only be seen as a rebuke to Mr. Clinton. In these times of peace and prosperity, this would amount to a scandal-weary repudiation of him by his own party. Mr. Clinton needs to be seen as highly influential in the selection of his successor.

Fourth, notwithstanding the fact the Bill Bradley has money and that a number of prominent Democrats have withheld their endorsement of Mr. Gore, Mr. Gore has a ton of money and a ton of endorsements. If George W. Bush hadn’t set the record for fund-raising this year, it would have gone to Mr. Gore’s efforts in the same period. And there are a lot of people across the country who are already fully vested in Mr. Gore and will do whatever it takes, including propping him up or dragging him feet-first, to get him across the finish line.

Think of the heroic measures that kept Bob Dole alive through South Carolina in 1996. And note that the vesting on behalf of a candidate is a force separate from and more powerful than calculations about his prospects in the general election. This is to say that a substantial number of people will be too busy fulfilling their commitment to the near-term struggle of winning Mr. Gore the nomination to worry much about what lies beyond. Mr. Gore’s people will never conclude by spring that he can’t win in November, or if they do, they will behave as if they have not reached such a conclusion.

Finally, about those New Hampshire poll results. Since no one else will say it, I will: In the past two elections, New Hampshire has become politically eccentric. The relationship of results there to anything that follows politically is now highly tenuous. Paul Tsongas beat Mr. Clinton there 34-26 in 1992. For a brief moment in 1996, following his New Hampshire victory, Pat Buchanan actually thought he was going to be the GOP nominee. Bob Dole himself had said in advance that the winner in New Hampshire would be the one who ultimately got the party’s nod. Wrong again.

Bill Bradley can cause Al Gore pain and suffering, and he may win some primaries, but depriving the vice president of the nomination would require something like political Gotterdammerung in the Democratic Party.