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Tightening Democratic Race Forces Gore Strategy Changes

By James Gerstenzang and Mark Z. Barabak
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- washington

Vice President Al Gore abruptly responded Wednesday to the growing support for Bill Bradley by challenging his rival to a series of debates and announcing he will move his campaign headquarters to Nashville.

Gore unveiled the twin measures as central to “a completely new campaign” in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. His bid for the White House, he said, now would be “closer to the grass-roots” and “out of the Beltway and into the heartland.”

Wednesday night, Gore also sought to recalibrate the expectations that have surrounded his candidacy. During an appearance on CNN's “Larry King Live,” he said, “In many ways I think you ought to count me as the underdog in this race now.... I feel like the underdog. I’m going to campaign like the underdog, and I think that’s the way to get elected.”

Earlier Wednesday, speaking at a hastily organized news conference at his soon-to-be-vacant political headquarters here, Gore for the first time mentioned Bradley by name in a campaign setting, a tacit acknowledgment that the Democratic contest is tightening.

When Bradley emerged as Gore’s only competition in the race, the vice president’s plan was to ignore the former New Jersey senator and present his own nomination as inevitable. But Bradley enjoyed surprisingly strong fund-raising success and steadily gained momentum, culminating in a poll last week showing him narrowly ahead in the early primary state of New Hampshire.

Conceding that the campaign underestimated Bradley, one Gore advisor said the vice president now “knows things are not going well.”

Gore put a more positive face on his announcement: “This is a hard, tough fight. And I'm going to fight my heart out for every single vote.”

The call for debates was a significant concession on Gore's part. Typically, a front-runner is loath to share a stage with a challenger because the equal footing confers equal status.

Meanwhile, Gore's campaign said it would report today that it has raised $6.5 million over the last three months, bringing its 1999 total to $24 million. It is a sizable sum, but still less than half the $52 million or more that Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP front-runner, is believed to have amassed.

Bradley’s campaign declined to release figures in advance of today’s deadline, but his receipts during the last three months are expected to be competitive with Gore’s. As of the last report on June 30, Gore had raised $17.5 million to Bradley's $11.7 million.

Significantly, Bradley’s report may show his leaner campaign has more cash on hand than Gore’s. The vice president’s campaign is believed to have $9.5 million to $10 million available.