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CAMPAIGN 2000

Gore Cautiously Adds a Bit of Risk

Strategy: From his pick of Joseph Lieberman as his running mate to pitching batting practice in Detroit, the vice president takes a gamble now and again.

October 01, 2000|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — Al Gore's detractors have mocked him as a risk-averse politician who makes no move until he takes a poll or convenes a focus group. They should have seen him recently on the pitcher's mound at Comerica Park.

Gore had been on the field only a few minutes before a New York tabloid reporter yelled, taunting from a seat behind home plate: "Let's see whatcha got, Al!"

Overcoming his initial reluctance, the vice president rolled up his sleeves and, as the TV cameras rolled, began hurling batting practice before thousands of Detroit Tigers fans. His red tie flapping, Gore threw around 40 pitches, most of them in the strike zone, and at a respectable velocity too.

Taking the mound with no warmup--while wearing slippery, leather-soled dress shoes--could have landed Gore on a tape of sports bloopers.

Even so, it paid off handsomely, judging by the publicity the Democratic presidential nominee garnered here in Michigan--a highly competitive state in which he needs to improve his standing among male voters.

Gore's critics, however, say he's anything but a risk-taker. At the Republican convention in Philadelphia in August, Texas Gov. George W. Bush delivered this riff about Gore: "If my opponent had been at the moon launch, it would have been a 'risky rocket scheme.' "

In fact, Gore can be quite the gambler--capable of "throwing the long ball," he says, to use another sports metaphor--especially when the chips are down.

"Absolutely," the vice president said without hesitation.

Such a propensity could surprise many if Gore becomes president. But just how the public regards such a trait in a presidential candidate--or a president--remains something of a conundrum.

As Harvard presidential scholar Richard Neustadt put it: "People like boldness. They also like caution."

Circumstances sometimes force a public official to act boldly--or seeming to do so, he added.

"It could be that that person is acting with his back against the wall--and he's got to do something," Neustadt said. "One man's boldness is another man's caution."

In the 2000 campaign, Gore's highest-risk act was his pick of Joseph I. Lieberman as running mate, making the Connecticut senator the first American Jew to run on a major presidential ticket. But Gore has taken other gambles.

Last month, he offered a 191-page, detail-laden economic plan and budget blueprint. In it are 10 ambitious and unequivocal goals that surely will be used to gauge every success--or failure--of a Gore presidency.

Running as a populist, the vice president also is courting the risk of coming across as an anti-business demagogue who resorts to class warfare--a tactic that drew a recent blast from the head of the National Assn. of Manufacturers.

"The idea that Al Gore is a safe politician has never quite matched my assessment of him," said Roy Neel, who served as Gore's chief of staff in the Senate and in the White House.

But if taking chances comes naturally to Gore, so does an impulse to calculate the odds before rolling the dice.

"If you don't make some mistakes, you're not trying hard enough," the vice president said in an interview.

"You've got to try new things in public policy in order to push the boundaries of what works. But I think the risks you take should be reasonable and considered. . . . I have done that in a number of policy areas. But I try to line it up in my sights before I pull the trigger."

Still, that approach hardly has ensured success--indeed it has not prevented some seriously embarrassing moments.

Even Gore's pitching stint here, impressive as it was, produced an unhappy result: It brought on a new bout of lower back pain that Gore still was nursing days later.

Two factors explain Gore's image as a cautious, don't-rock-the-boat politician.

One stems directly from his 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance," a best-selling environmental treatise that warned gravely about the dangers of global warming.

In it, Gore confesses right off the bat--in the introduction--that at one point in his career he "began to doubt my own political judgment" and started to "ask the pollsters and professional politicians what they thought I ought to talk about."

Several pages later (still in the introduction), Gore took himself to task for his "tendency to put a finger to the political winds."

In each passage, Gore was ruing his earlier less-than-forceful position concerning global warming. Critics assigned these regrets a connotation Gore did not intend, thus spawning caricatures of him as a wishy-washy panderer.

The other factor has been Gore's unrelenting denunciation of Bush's $1.3-trillion tax cut proposal as "a risky tax scheme." This frequently repeated phrase prompted Bush to joke about the risky rocket scheme and to add: "If he'd been there when Edison was testing the light bulb, it would have been a 'risky anti-candle scheme.' "

Yet Gore has a long track record of taking risks.

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