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The race to be the underdog

Have the laws of mathematics suddenly shifted? If the last few weeks are any gauge, it would seem that the top position in Democratic presidential politics is No. 2.

As he moved his campaign headquarters from Washington to Tennessee earlier this month, Vice President Al Gore went to great pains to announce he is officially no longer the front-runner in the quest for the Democratic nomination. New polls in New Hampshire showed him actually trailing his opponent Bill Bradley. It's a whole new campaign, Mr. Gore told Larry King with a smile. "I feel like the underdog. I'm going to campaign like the underdog."

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How did Mr. Bradley's campaign react to the announcement? Did it celebrate this turn of events as a sign its low-key, low-cost approach to campaigning had led Big Bill to the top of the mountain? Not exactly. It turns out that Bradley isn't interested in being in first place either.

He maintains that he is actually the underdog.

And as the only two serious contenders for the Democratic nomination pass the dreaded mantle of "favorite" back and forth like a case of the cooties, the voters are left to wonder if anyone is actually interested in pulling out front.

Of course, none of this is exactly new in presidential politics. "Lowering expectations" is as much a part of the game as kissing babies and promising programs that are impossible to deliver. But this year the expectations game is reaching new heights - or depths, depending on your point of view.

At this point in the campaign we should be hearing the "my campaign will soon be a runaway freight train" speech. Instead, Gore and Bradley sound like timid college football coaches, praising their opponent and wondering out loud how they can possibly stop the juggernaut they face, as they secretly hope their squad can come up with the big win.

What's behind the anti-trash-talk? Well, the Gore camp says the campaign's new tone and moves are all about reinvigorating the vice president's run for the White House. Free from the Beltway and the pressures of front-running, his staff maintains Gore is free to be Gore - which only leaves us to wonder who he was before the change.

Bradley's people, of course, maintain Bradley honestly is the underdog - a claim that holds a certain amount of truth, but less and less as the polls roll in.

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As odd as this "underdog-off" seems, however, it makes perfect sense when viewed through the skewed political prism of New Hampshire - the state where the license plates proclaim the sunny motto "Live Free or Die." And in truth the strategy probably has as much to do with the peculiarities of that state as it does with anything else.

New Hampshire has always been an odd place to kick off the presidential primary season - more of an eastern Twin Peaks than Anytown, USA. The much-advertised "independent streak" among the state's voters has long been a colorful way of saying they are fond of turning on front-runners. And in the 2000 race, the always important New Hampshire primary has taken on added weight. The thinking is, a short primary season makes winning the Feb. 1 vote critical for momentum heading into the New York and California votes, which come only a month later.

Mix these elements together and voil, we have the current situation wherein Gore and Bradley are locked in a titanic struggle to see who can be second in the voters' minds with the hope of finishing first at the polls.

But the underdog strategy brings with it some dangers, particularly for Gore. New Hampshire may hold the first primary, but it can't be forgotten that it is still just one primary on a winding road. Playing to the "independent streak" of voters there will not help Gore outside the state.

It may, in fact, hurt him by essentially telling voters who wisely haven't paid much attention to the presidential race before now that Gore is in trouble. After all, here is a man everyone has assumed would be the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton won the office in 1992.

There is, however, a bigger question in the underdog strategy for Gore. How exactly does a sitting vice president in a highly successful White House convince voters he is the underdog, especially when his competition isn't interested in being the front-runner?

Somewhere in Gore headquarters there is probably a strategist who can come up with a scenario to explain this. But in reality the answer is simple: Gore can't.

*Dante Chinni writes political commentary from Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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