The Washington Times

Al Gore actually beat Bill Bradley rather narrowly in New Hampshire. But thanks to the nuclear warhead that went off on the GOP side, the vice president escaped most of the damage that Mr. Bradley’s show of continuing viability might have caused.

The damage takes the form of a feedback loop, in which viability begets media coverage of one’s viability, which in turn begets greater viability. For a look at this phenomenon on steroids, see the McCain campaign. Mr. Bradley might have expected similar treatment for having escaped being put away by Mr. Gore, but Mr. McCain is getting all the attention now and will likely continue to do so until he loses an important primary.

Lucky Al Gore. The identical result could have been a lot worse for him were it not for the GOP action. In fact, in five important ways, the correlation of forces has begun to move in Mr. Gore’s favor.

First, George W. Bush’s defeat in New Hampshire has pricked the bubble of inevitability in which the governor traveled. There was a time in the fall when the emanations of Mr. Bush’s aura extended not just to his inevitable nomination, but to his inevitable victory over Mr. Gore in November. Such, anyway, was the interpretation his campaign invited us to draw from Mr. Bush’s huge lead in the polls against other Republicans and his double-digit lead against Mr. Gore.

The odd assumption here seems to have been that no one would run a campaign against Mr. Bush – or that any campaign run against him would necessarily be ineffectual. Wrong. We now see Mr. Bush struggling to get back on top, and accordingly, we see Mr. Gore rising against him in head-to-head match-ups.

Second, Mr. Bush, in order to beat back the McCain challenge, is now running as the conservative in the race. The Bush campaign began with an attempt on the part of the candidate to distance himself from the farther right reaches of the GOP, in an obvious appeal for the center of the electorate. Now, he is emphasizing his conservatism.

Mr. Gore’s forces were going to paint Mr. Bush as a crypto right-winger anyway. What George H. W. Bush did to Michael Dukakis as a “liberal, liberal, liberal” in 1988, Al Gore was planning to do to George W. Bush in 2000 from the other direction. (For example, Pledge of Allegiance is to Gov. Dukakis as Confederate flag is to Gov. Bush.) The Bush campaign had hoped the candidate’s articulation of his “compassionate conservatism” would render such an attack ridiculous on its face. Now, Mr. Bush’s primary maneuvering to the right will add resonance to it.

Third, the McCain-Bush showdown is a drain on Republicans. Already on the GOP side, people have ceased speaking to each other over Mr. McCain. There are three kinds of Republicans: those who love John McCain; those who can stand the idea of John McCain as the party’s standard-bearer, and those who can’t. When Mr. McCain was looking like a cheerful loser, it was unnecessary for can’t-standers to get themselves too worked up over him. Now that he is a contender, sentiment has radicalized on both sides. This bitterness redounds to the benefit of Mr. Gore.

Fourth, the Gore campaign figures, probably rightly, that Mr. Gore will eventually put Mr. Bradley away. This will be no small moment for Mr. Gore. Since early December, when he at last found his footing in this race, Mr. Gore has been a man transformed, the very picture of determination in pursuit of a goal. The McCain-Bush fight will not be the obsessive focus of election coverage forever. Come the day when Mr. Gore administers the coup de grace to Mr. Bradley, the spotlight will be on Mr. Gore, alpha male – how he withstood a surprisingly strong challenge, how he remade his stiff image, how tough his political organization has become, how he finally emerged from Bill Clinton’s shadow, etc.

Fifth, Mr. Clinton’s State of the Union address – a laundry list, to be sure, but a visionary laundry list – has effectively queued up all the issues the vice president will be running on. The budget the White House released yesterday reinforces the message. The political operation of the White House is set to spend the budget season echoing and buttressing the points Mr. Gore is making on the campaign trail. The Republicans on Capitol Hill do not look to be in a position to similarly reinforce their candidate’s message, not least because of recent doubt about who the candidate will be.

For the moment, it’s good to be Al Gore. It is not, however, perfect. For one thing, Mr. Bradley keeps hammering at Clinton-Gore ethics and the vice president’s deception, and for another, Mr. McCain is doing the same. It has not exactly been backfiring so far – on the contrary. This is a drain for Mr. Gore, who had somehow hoped to rule those issues out of bounds. Not just yet. In addition, in trying to lock up the nomination, Mr. Gore has moved to the left, in some cases taking the Clinton administration with him. These moves risk slipping out of the mainstream on issues the GOP can exploit. But Mr. Gore’s position is now better than it has been at any point in the past year. For the first time, he is beginning to look as formidable as he theoretically ought to.