The Washington Times

The story of the Gore campaign so far can be summed up with a word from the vocabulary of financial market watchers: “underperform.” Except for the heady weeks following a very successful Democratic convention, when it looked like Mr. Gore might be turning the corner and opening up a lead against George W. Bush that was more than a post-convention bounce, Mr. Gore has simply not done as well as he ought to, given the givens.

Take the Battleground poll, a bipartisan effort of Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and GOP pollster Ed Goeas. They have been doing a daily tracking poll since early September. Their head-to-head numbers have often read more favorably for Mr. Bush than Mr. Gore, but their current assessment, which puts Mr. Bush up 41-36, is consistent with other current polls.

The Battleground poll has also asked a generic question about voter’s presidential preference: Would they vote for a Democrat or a Republican candidate for president? Yesterday’s poll result was 43-42 in favor of the Democratic candidate, and in general since September, this generic split has been very even. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that to voters, a Democratic presidential candidate is more attractive in theory than in the particular case of Mr. Gore.

Similarly, voters seem rather firmly attached to the view that Democrats do a better job handling most issues, from education and the environment to health care, Social Security and the economy. Mr. Gore even runs very close to Mr. Bush on that old GOP stalwart, tax cuts. And Republicans experienced a moment of uncomprehending agony in late August, when Mr. Gore actually edged out Mr. Bush on “upholding moral values” (Mr. Bush has since regained the edge there). For Republicans, national defense has been one of the rare bright spots in the mix.

And yet: Mr. Gore has not managed to turn these specific advantages, running nearly across the board, into support for his own candidacy. Until very recently in the campaign season, as events in the Mideast have taken an alarming turn, the backdrop of the election has been unprecedented peace and prosperity. In such a crisis-free environment, why wouldn’t a candidate whose views voters say they favor on issues attract commensurate support?

Moreover, Mr. Gore is running toward the center, not as a liberal. He has taken a surprisingly low-key approach on gun control, for example. It’s clear he knows that members of the National Rifle Association are lost to him, but in his reassurances to sportsmen and even those who have guns in their homes for protection that he has no designs on them, he seems to be reaching well to the right of his party mainstream. Similarly in the case of capital punishment. Opponents of execution in his own party have been free with advice on how Mr. Gore might zing Mr. Bush on the subject, but Mr. Gore has not done so, instead stressing his support for the death penalty. Nor, in the end, is paying off the national debt, the centerpiece of Mr. Gore’s economic plan, exactly a liberal cause. Yet this “New Democrat” reach to the center has not sealed the deal for Mr. Gore.

And then there are the political scientists, all of whose election models (based on economic conditions, etc.) predict a Gore victory, and a strong one at that. By now, one would have expected to see signs of the gathering momentum of such a victory. They aren’t there.

And let me add a personal note. I wrote an article in the Weekly Standard in June 1999 called “It’s the Dukakis Campaign, Stupid,” explaining how much a Bush-Gore 2000 matchup theoretically resembled the Michael Dukakis-George Bush matchup of 1988, with the partisan roles reversed. It showed how formidable a sitting vice president operating in good economic times could be, particularly against a relatively inexperienced opponent from a state known for tilting farther to the right than the country as a whole (as Mr. Dukakis’ Massachusetts tilts farther left). Mr. Gore has been unable to follow this model so far, and there should have been signs of his ability to do so long before now.

What lies behind Mr. Gore’s underperformance to date? Possibly, it’s personal; the national news media long ago came to the consensus judgment that Mr. Gore is not very likeable, in contrast to Mr. Bush.

Possibly, it’s about misjudging the political center. While Democrats correctly believe that the American people had little stomach for revolutionary Republicanism of 1995-96 fame, there is a substantial amount of conservative territory short of revolution – territory that is not, perhaps, understood well by Democrats, in much the way that Third Way politics is not well understood by Republicans. Perhaps when people add up the edge Mr. Gore enjoys on a long string of issues, the sum is a bigger government than they want.

Possibly, it’s a matter of a misreading of the times. Why was Mr. Gore unable to claim an incumbent’s credit for peace and prosperity? Maybe Americans don’t much credit the Clinton administration for the good times – or regard the administration’s claims as exaggerated.

Mr. Gore has three weeks to figure it out and fix it, lest the recriminations start in earnest.