The Washington Times

The post-primary polling has at least brought a certain clarity to the task the Gore campaign faces in the months ahead. The vice president had pulled about even, perhaps slightly ahead, in head-to-head matchups with George W. Bush as the dust settled from Sen. John McCain’s robust challenge to the Texas governor. This stood in sharp contrast to the double-digit leads Mr. Bush enjoyed during the preprimary season.

But Mr. Gore’s good news did not last. One of the so-far surprising things about Mr. Gore’s performance in polls has been how little his ambitions have apparently benefited from current conditions of peace and unprecedented prosperity. If Mr. Gore’s rise against Mr. Bush as the primaries came to an end looked at all like Mr. Gore catching a bit of the prosperity wave, it no longer looks like such a thing. Polls now show Mr. Gore behind again (although nowhere near as far behind).

While the stock market has been bouncing around lately, instead of just going up, and while there may be some warning signs of inflation or other trouble, the economy continues to chug along. By now, Mr. Gore may even have passed the point at which a downturn can hurt him: Anything short of a serious and sudden crash may not really register with people before the November election. Recall that in 1992, the economic expansion that is still under way began well before the election, but was not enough to lift President Bush out of the political mire caused by the recession of 1991.

From here on, Mr. Gore ought to benefit from the upside of this cycle. Indeed, more than a few observers regard Mr. Gore’s election in such conditions as an all-but-certain outcome. Democrats are generally quite confident about the main event in November. Their greater worry is for the prospect of retaking the House, where incumbents (in this case, the Republican majority) may likewise be expected to benefit from the strong economy. Nor is everyone who inclines toward this view a Gore loyalist. I myself have given up theories of inevitability. But, really, who could ask for better economic conditions in which to run for president from the vice president’s office? Turn the matter around: Wouldn’t it be prima facie evidence of political incompetence or malpractice to lose an election in these conditions?

Still the rising tide has not yet lifted Mr. Gore’s boat. A more plausible explanation for what turns out to have been Mr. Gore’s upward post-primary blip is that the Republican candidates were then engaged in trying to inflict maximal political damage on each other. While that was going on, Mr. Gore was the incidental beneficiary.

When does Mr. Gore get his reward? When does the mantle of the “Clinton-Gore economy” come to rest on his shoulders?

One can detect a certain impatience in the Gore camp here. Mr. Gore spent much of the time in the early post-primary season, as he was slipping back against Mr. Bush again, embroiled in the Elian Gonzalez case, trying without great success to explain that his position had not in fact changed (which was true) and that it was not the product of political pandering (if it was, it was a monumentally ineffective exercise in political pandering; in this regard, it looks principled). In any event, Mr. Gore didn’t exactly spend these weeks explaining to voters why he is the indispensable man for keeping the good times rolling.

More recently, Mr. Gore has sharpened his attack on Mr. Bush and the Republicans as a threat to the good times. Mr. Bush’s “risky tax scheme,” as Mr. Gore likes to describe it, now has company in the form of Mr. Bush’s comparably ominous “secret plan” for Social Security.

Clearly, a part of what Mr. Gore needs to do is to persuade voters that Mr. Bush’s policy proposals and instincts are dangerous. But that’s only half the job. Mr. Gore also needs to persuade people that he’s the one who has what it takes to carry on.

This, Mr. Gore has not yet done. Sometimes, his campaign almost seems to act as if the mantle of prosperity is Mr. Gore’s as a matter of right – the air of inevitability again. Eventually, it must fall upon him. Maybe it will. On the other hand, maybe Mr. Gore must act to claim it. As Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster who conducts the bipartisan Battleground Poll with Republican Ed Goeas, notes, the affection people have for the status quo does not mean they think the status quo is something that can be maintained passively. They want to know what candidates will do next.