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Does Gore Look Like A Winner?

By any reasonable analysis, Al Gore has had a rough couple of weeks. Traction? He can't seem to find any.

Item: He launches his "Progress and Prosperity" tour, and word leaks out that the Justice Department is planning to sic a special prosecutor on him for his alleged fundraising violations in the 1996 election.

Item: His campaign manager, Tony Coelho, is forced to quit with health problems and the new campaign manager, outgoing Commerce Secretary William Daley, drives the Teamsters into a love-in with Ralph Nader.

Item: The death penalty puts Texas Governor George Bush in an uncomfortable spotlight, and all Gore can do is speak diplomatically about moratoria. Because his record shows him to be pro-death penalty and because the federal government happens to have what would be its first execution since the Kennedy administration scheduled for early August.

Item: President Clinton announces that the federal budget surplus will be even greater - by a trillion dollars - than previously thought. That gives Bush's big tax cut and defense boost budget proposals a better chance of being taken seriously.

Right now, the vice president can't win for losing. His campaign has turned into some sort of physics experiment - every action from the outside world has an opposite and equal reaction on his chances to succeed Bill Clinton as president. Gore is down in most national polls by eight or nine points.

Perhaps Gore can take some solace, though, in one recent poll that has him winning in November by a landslide.

The poll is not a national one, nor does it have a large sampling group. But it does have a fine pedigree: it's a sampling of a handful of top political scientists who use data such as leading economic indicators and polling results on general political attitudes to predict presidential races. Among them, they have an excellent record of calling recent elections - and less recent ones - when they apply their methods retroactively.

These academic prognosticators say that Gore will get 53-60 percent of the vote in a two-way race. The unprecedented strength of the American economy figures heavily into their analysis, particularly the way Americans answer the question: "Are [you] better off or worse financially than you were a year ago?"

Another key factor they use in determining a decisive Gore victory is Bill Clinton's continuing popularity, as measured by his job approval rating, which has held steady at about 60 percent for some time.

But isn't this like a weather person forecasting sun when everyone knows it's raining outside? Can't these political scientists just "look out the window" and see the poll numbers that show raindrops falling on Al Gore's head?

Well, political observers will tell you that those June poll numbers don't mean very much. They'll point to the fact that, in three of the last five elections, the eventual winner was behind in June. Mr. Clinton, in June 199, was in third place, behind Ross Perot and George Bush senior. Mr. Bush trailed Michael Dukakis by double digits in June 1988.

So can we assume that Gore will similarly turn things around, to bear out these experts' prediction? The answer, of course, is: no one knows. It's worth bearing in mind, though, that the card counting that leads the group to predict a Gore victory does not take into account some of the wild cards in the deck this year.

Wild cards such as...

White House Scandal: While no one sees Gore becoming enmeshed in a Clinton-style sex scandal, lingering questions about the vice president's fund-raising improprieties could give voters the impression that it's time to clean house. Then again, one could come back with the example of Bush the elder in 1988-when the then-vice president ran and won despite his role in the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandal.

Buchanan and Nader: The forecasters have Gore winning the lion's share of a two-way vote. Based on history, they discount the effect of third-party candidates. What about the conventional wisdom that Ross Perot split the Bush vote and gave Clinton the White House in 1992? Presumably, the economic numbers would have pointed to a Bush defeat, Perot or no. But this year, Buchanan and Nader represent third and fourth party candidates. Will they cancel each other out, with Buchanan drawing from Bush and Nader from Gore? Or will this election express some unforeseen dynamic from their simultaneous challenge to the major parties? Only time will tell.

It's the Economy Stupid I: The economic numbers may point to a victory by the incumbent Gore, but that presumes that Gore will be successful in drawing the linkage between himself and the boom and that he will get the message across that "A vote for Gore is a vote for more" of the same. That's what his "Progress and Prosperity" tour was supposed to drive home. The predictive models assume that the candidates will run effective, competent campaigns. Has Gore done so, thus far? Even a charitable assessment would have to conclude that the vice president has had a hard time staying "on message." Especially compared to the tour-de-force performance of his political mentor in the '92 campaign.

It's the Economy Stupid II: There are signs that the economy may be so strong that it's actually working against Gore in some ways. Or may at least be changing the traditional political equation. On the tactical level, the stock market boom helps Bush defend his proposal to put some Social Security funds in the market, against Gore's charges that it is an unacceptably "risky" scheme. And, per above, the growing budget surplus would also appear to make Bush's budget plan more feasible than previously thought. On the broader, strategic level, the economy is so hot right now that the American people may not feel that any one administration - or even government in general - can roperly take credit for it.

Gore in 2000? By a landslide? Sure, it's possible. Either way, though, don't go betting the farm. Not in this election season. In this election, it may well be that the only sure-fire polling will be done in the voting booths.

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