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Gore Steps Up His School Profile in Time for 2000

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This month, Vice President Al Gore joined the annual army of Clinton administration officials participating in back-to-school events.

But what raised eyebrows was where he chose to deliver the administration's education message. Mr. Gore visited Woodman Elementary School in Dover, N.H.--the state that holds the nation's first presidential primary. And the next of these Granite State political showdowns is just 29 months away.

The Sept. 5 appearance with Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley may reflect the vice president's seriousness about winning the Democratic Party's presidential nomination for an election still more than three years away. It also suggests that the former Tennessee senator may give big play to an education message in his quest for the White House.

At the New Hampshire stop, Mr. Gore read a book to a class of 1st graders on their second day of school and addressed an assembly of students, teachers, and parents in the town in the southeastern corner of the state.

"Under President Clinton, we are trying to make the point to the whole United States of America that the key to our future is education," Mr. Gore told the audience. "And one of the most important things you can possibly do is ... learning to read when you are young."

Around New Hampshire

The vice president went on to praise the president's America Reads initiative, which--if funded by Congress--would recruit and train 1 million reading tutors to work with young children. He also reminded the audience that the administration's Goals 2000: Educate America Act paid for new computers at the school.

Later, the vice president visited a small-business center for women in Portsmouth and attended a fund-raiser for state Democratic candidates in Corning.

While it was not billed as a campaign tour, many in the press and political community interpreted it as one. "This is just sort of a normal stop" for a prospective candidate, said Charles E. Cook, the publisher of The Cook Political Report, a Washington-based newsletter.

The visit to a school generated media coverage on an important issue, and the fund-raiser won loyalty from people who will be able to mobilize volunteers for the presidential primary, according to Cook.

While New Hampshire reporters did quiz the vice president about his involvement in allegedly improper Democratic fund raising, much of the press coverage of his trip was positive.

The vice president's appearance at Woodman Elementary School was not his first education-related event in recent months. Among those activities:

  • In July, he announced that high-tech executives, with his encouragement, had created a computer network to link parents and teachers.
  • In May and June, his name headlined a series of six Department of Education press releases announcing the award of technology and migrant education grants in 10 states. The releases were among the few times the vice president's name has appeared in the department's announcements.
  • In April, he spoke at a memorial service for Albert Shanker, the late American Federation of Teachers president.
  • He also has hired Kay Casstevens, the Department of Education's former congressional relations director.

Given the traditional need of Democratic candidates to court union support to help win the party's nomination and the general election, an emphasis on education would be a way to woo the aft and the National Education Association, both longtime party stalwarts. Mr. Gore and his rivals "will be fighting union by union, member by member," Mr. Cook said.

Members of the two national teachers' unions made up more than 10 percent of the delegates and alternates at the Democratic National Convention last year. ("Calif. Student Helps NEA Carry Banner in Chicago," Sept. 4, 1996.)

Mr. Gore worked with NEA officials as they organized opposition to a provision in a recent tax bill that would have created tax incentives to send children to private K-12 schools, according to Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the union's director of government relations.

Need for a 'Wedge'

The vice president's chief competition for the 2000 Democratic nomination for president is likely to be Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who, like Mr. Gore, has not yet officially announced a campaign for the presidency. With his long-standing opposition to free-trade policies, Mr. Gephardt, the House minority leader, is seen as a union favorite.

Mr. Gore, on the other hand, "needs to drive a wedge in the labor movement, and teachers would be a prime place to do that," Mr. Cook said.

Still, Mr. Cook and others doubt the vice president will continue to be as active on education issues as President Clinton, who built his re-election campaign around an education theme last year and, to a lesser extent, in 1992.

Mr. Gore's early political career wasn't dedicated to education matters, the way Mr. Clinton's was, said a scholar of presidential campaigns.

"I'm not sure Gore can emulate" Mr. Clinton on school issues, said Charles O. Jones, a nonresident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank.

Mr. Jones said the vice president may be like former President George Bush, who spoke often about education during his 1988 race but focused his energies elsewhere.

PHOTO: Vice President Al Gore reads to Barbara Soris' 1st grade class at Woodman Elementary School in Dover, N.H. A visit to the state that holds the first presidential primary signals to some that the vice president has begun his campaign for the 2000 Democratic nomination. As he has raised his profile in recent months, Mr. Gore has focused on education.
--AP/Wide World

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