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Can Gore Win Over House Dems?

Illinois Rep. David Phelps worries that Al Gore won't escape negative comparisons to Bill Clinton. Rep. Anthony Weiner faults the vice president for spending too much time wooing establishment politicians. Fellow New York Rep. Joseph Crowley fears Gore isn't paying enough attention to key Democratic constituencies.

None of the three House freshmen appear on the carefully tended and aggressively recruited list of lawmakers who have endorsed Gore's presidential campaign.

"I believe in endorsements. I don't believe in anything else...They're tremendous validators for what we're trying to do," said Gore's campaign chairman, Tony Coelho.

But so far, just 69 of the 256 Democrats in the House and Senate have publicly endorsed the vice president. That includes only one of the 11 Democratic senators up for re-election in 2000 - Maryland's Paul Sarbanes, whose seat is considered safe and four of the 20 House Democrats who are considered vulnerable next year because of their narrow margins of victory in 1998.

"As important as the presidency is, we are very invested in recapturing the House of Representatives," said Washington Rep. Brian Baird, president of the House freshman class.

"I'm paddling my own canoe," said Kentucky Rep. Ken Lucas, who won his seat in 1998 by 6 percentage points.

Massachusetts freshman Michael Capuano, another one who has put Gore off, said it's too early in the campaign. The question is, "Can Al Gore do it? ... I am not convinced yet who will be best for the country and my district," he said.

Crowley, the New York freshman, has decided to support Gore because of the vice president's outreach to veterans and labor unions, but the lawmaker hasn't made an official endorsement because of local politics, he said.

Phelps said he's attended Gore campaign strategy sessions and voiced concern that "Gore is having a tough time trying to overcome being compared to Bill Clinton." He said he believes in Gore's strength as a candidate but has not pledged support.

"I've got to be sure. I've got to get my own house in order," he said. "We're just being cautious. It shouldn't be interpreted as being negative."

Gore's campaign is planning a series of fall events to make a splash with new endorsements from critical Democratic communities including blacks, Hispanics, organized labor and elected officials.

Weiner, whose New York district is considered ripe territory for a Bradley insurgency, recently complained to his local newspaper about Gore and the administration's plan to build a radar tower in Gateway National Park.

Coelho and another Gore campaign aide "were on the phone with me instantly," Weiner said. "Bradley has strong connections here. If Gore is going to start hemorrhaging support, it may be here. But they have been pretty aggressive."

The congressman added, "They may be investing too much time in making sure that politicians are beinkept happy."

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