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Gore's Voting Record: Flip-Flops or Evolution?

Campaign: Bill Bradley has noted the differences between the vice president's congressional stands and current positions. Voters don't seem to mind.


WASHINGTON — He voted against expanding union picketing rights. He opposed gun control and federal funding for abortion. He backed local water projects that environmentalists despised. In short, as a young member of Congress, Al Gore did what might be expected of someone representing a rural, conservative district in Tennessee.

Now, however, as Gore seeks the Democratic presidential nomination, rival Bill Bradley has spotlighted the contrast between the vice president's congressional voting record and his more liberal pronouncements on the campaign trail. And that has raised a central question that may outlast Bradley's own flagging campaign: Does Gore's record reflect the flip-flopping of an ambitious opportunist or the maturation of a public official who has adapted to changing constituencies in changing times?

Gore acknowledges that he cast some votes in Congress he would not cast today. So far, that does not seem to have hurt him politically.

"Most people who enter politics relatively early in life go through a journey," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who is neutral in the race. "At some point as they mature, they become more settled personas. At this stage it makes more sense to take Gore for who he is now, and most voters are quite content to do that."

Still, Gore's congressional votes provide a reminder that on many issues, ranging from defense to some social issues, Gore was more conservative than the liberal majority that dominated the Democratic Party while he was in Congress. Indeed, he was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of centrists dedicated to pulling their party away from its traditional liberal moorings.

First elected to the House in 1976, Gore represented a district in east Tennessee until he won a seat in the Senate in 1984. He won reelection in 1990, then left the Senate in 1993 after being elected Bill Clinton's vice president. While his record during those years was generally more conservative than Bradley's, Gore was never a classic "Boll Weevil" conservative Democrat--the faction that fought their party's liberal leadership and made common cause with Republicans during the Reagan administration. Even during his House career, Gore was one of the least conservative members of the Tennessee delegation.

"Is Gore a conservative? Not by any stretch of the imagination," said Amy Isaacs, national director of the Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal lobbying group. "But that doesn't make him any raving liberal."

The ADA's analysis of Gore's entire congressional voting record found that he sided with the group on key votes 66% of the time. But on selected issues such as abortion rights and defense policy, he departed from the liberal line more often than that, the analysis found.

Bradley has scored Gore not only for his votes in Congress, but for trying to minimize how much his positions have changed over the years. The former New Jersey senator created a Web site expressly to detail changes in Gore's voting record. In Wednesday's debate in Los Angeles, he continued to attack Gore for voting several times from 1979 to 1981 against new regulations for denying tax-exempt status for schools that practiced racial discrimination. Gore has said he opposed the new rules because they would, in effect, apply quotas in deciding whether a school discriminates and rebuffed Bradley's demand that he repudiate those votes.

On abortion, however, Gore acknowledges that his position has changed over the last two decades. The National Right to Life Committee has calculated that during his House years, Gore voted with its position 84% of the time, including numerous votes to deny federal funding for abortion. But after he went to the Senate, Gore reversed field and voted with the anti-abortion rights group only twice.

During the current campaign, Gore has insisted that he never opposed a woman's right to an abortion. He says he eventually dropped his opposition to federal abortion funding because he realized that stance meant that poor women often were denied abortion rights. The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the leading abortion-rights lobby, has rewarded Gore for his evolution on the issue by endorsing his candidacy.

"He is pro-choice," said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL. "The fact that he evolved from his time in the House does not make him any less pro-choice today."

Gore underwent a parallel transformation on gun control. During his House years, Gore received favorable ratings from the National Rifle Assn., casting votes such as one in 1978 to block funding for controversial firearms regulations. Even after he went to the Senate, Gore voted in 1985 for a major bill to relax gun regulations--a bill the NRA called "the most significant pro-gun owners bill of the past quarter century."

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