Vice President Al Gore, in a show of political force to kick off his 2000 presidential campaign, secured the endorsements Monday of House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and party stalwarts from the early battleground states of New Hampshire and Iowa.
With onstage hugs from Gephardt, Gore implored a New Hampshire crowd to "stand by me," then headed for Iowa and a later stop in his onetime rival's hometown of St. Louis.
"We would all be proud to have him as president of the United States," said the Missouri lawmaker, who opted out of the presidential race Feb. 3 to focus his energies on becoming speaker of the House.
Gephardt's announcement reflects the desire of top Democrats to settle the presidential nomination early and set their sights on winning both the House and White House in November 2000. President Clinton long ago pledged to help Gore get elected, guaranteeing his understudy an advantage not always bestowed upon vice presidents.
Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley is the only announced challenger for the party's presidential nomination, though civil rights activist Jesse Jackson may enter the fray.
Lagging in polls, Bradley hopes to build a resurgent campaign that catches fire at the grass roots. He is buoyed by evidence of potential Gore weakness in the general election.
"We've got to have a nominee who can win," Bradley said.
Gore plans to capitalize on the popularity of Clinton initiatives while at the same time distinguishing himself from his boss.
The difficulty of this balancing act was evident at a New Hampshire news conference. Gore said he will "face entirely new challenges, and we need new answers." Yet his answers sounded familiar: Reduce class sizes, make preschool available to all students and improve health care. Clinton has pressed those ideas, but Gore promises to push them further.
"If you don't want to join us in bringing radical change to public education, stand out of the way," he told a crowd of 400 New Hampshire activists at a boisterous indoor rally.
With hardly a mention of his boss, Gore shouted again and again: "Stand by me!"
Gephardt and Gore hugged after their speeches, raising their hands high.
The pair headed next to Iowa, hitting in one day the two states that cast the earliest votes in 2000.
In rolling out the endorsements on his first official political trip of the campaign, Gore hoped to develop a sense of inevitability about his nomination even before he formally announces his candidacy.
"It's a reflection of reality," David Rohde, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, said of Gephardt's endorsement. "He and everyone else thinks Gore will be the nominee. What Gephardt wants is to be speaker and it's better to be part of a team than to hold back."
He said Gephardt's endorsement is important because the Missouri lawmker is a powerful figure in the party's liberal wing a faction that Bradley needs to court.
During the three-state swing, Gore also locked down the endorsements of Bill Shaheen, husband of New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, and prominent Democrats in Iowa.
The New Hampshire governor and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack are still neutral, though Shaheen is said to be leaning heavily toward Gore.
The same polls that show Gore with a wide lead over Bradley offer hints at weakness.
The latest Wall Street Journal-NBC poll shows Gore 18 percentage points behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the early favorite for the Republican nomination. Gore did not mention Bush but criticized his father's "failed prescriptions of the past."
A Pew Research Center survey found nearly half of independent voters and 16 percent of likely Democratic voters said they had ruled out voting for Gore. The same poll showed that 76 percent of independents and 53 percent of Democrats said they would consider voting for Bush.
"If I were the Gore campaign I would be concerned," said Democratic consultant David Axelrod of Chicago. "But I wouldn't panic."
Last week, Gore worked from the White House to lay claim to a series of bite-size initiatives popular among suburban voters, such as promising to ease traffic jams. Fine ideas, Democrats say, but he needs to leave Clinton's side to promote his own agenda.
"I'm not sure about that ribbon-cutting strategy. That one makes me nervous," Axelrod said. "I think it just underscores the second-banana thing."
Republicans say Gore won't escape Clinton's policies or controversies.
"He is the Velcro to Clinton's Teflon," said GOP media strategist Alex Castellanos.
Gore proved last week that he can make mistakes. He claimed that he created the Internet, giving Republicans reason to howl.
Shortly after announcing he would not be a presidential candidate, Gephardt told Gore over lunch that he would endorse him. Gore's campaign saved the announcement until they could get the greatest attention for it.
Gore will formally declare his candidacy later this year.