HAMPTON, NH (CNS) - A more animated Al Gore mingled with New Hampshire voters this weekend and none too soon, according to some Democrats worried about the challenge Gore is facing to win his party's presidential nomination.
A growing number of Democratic activists are predicting a closer race between Gore and his sole challenger, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, than originally thought.
A recent poll by the Manchester-based American Research Group indicated just how tight the Gore-Bradley contest has become. The July survey showed Gore at 48 percent and Bradley at 32, but the poll also showed that Gore has slipped from his February high of 61 percent, while Bradley has skyrocketed from his February tally of nine percent.
Some New Hampshire Democrats told CNSNews.com that the vice president and his handlers have been warned about the seriousness of Bradley's campaign, offering suggestions on what they believe Gore must do to prevail, often citing the state's pride in its unique brand of retail politics.
"The time is now to get the message and mix and mingle," said one party loyalist who did not want his name published. "Bill Bradley is not a joke. It would be a mistake to take him lightly."
Gore appeared to have gotten the message. No matter where he went during his two-day swing through this first in the nation primary state this weekend, Gore seemed determined to mix with crowds.
In the seacoast city of Portsmouth, Gore walked the streets arm in arm with former Mayor Eileen Foley, the seacoast matriarch of her party, kissing babies, signing autographs and chatting with voters.
At a town meeting intended to highlight Gore's role in the Clinton Administration's economic policy, the sometimes-wonkish Gore gave way to a man who laughed easily. A tent rally of more than 300 party faithful on Hampton Beach saw an animated Gore rip Republicans for what he called "risky tax schemes."
All in all, party leaders said they were pleased by this latest incarnation of the man many still believe will be their nominee. But despite this new and improved candidate, key party activists insisted Gore must overcome a spirited, determined and serious challenge from Bradley.
"It will definitely be a competitive race," Democratic State Chairman Kathy Sullivan told CNSNews.com. "This being New Hampshire, people want to get a close look at both the vice president and (former) Senator Bradley." Sullivan added she would not be surprised if Bradley is still competitive with Gore late into the fall and early winter as the primary approaches.
Without mentioning any candidates by name, Sullivan suggested that politicians take a cue from the playbook of the Reform Party's highest ranking elected official.
"Both parties need to take a lesson from Minnesota Governor Jessie Ventura," Sillivan said. "He has shown that an outsider and straight talker has great political appeal, especially to younger voters who are increasingly turned off by the political process. The candidates need to pay attention to this phenomenon."
While insisting Gore will win the primary, Deb Crapo, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party and a long time Clinton-Gore supporter, told CNSNews.com that she would not be surprised to see Bradley narrow the current gap come autumn. According to Crapo, rank and file Democrats have urged her to "persuade Gore to go one-on-one with voters," adding, "that's my message to the Gore people."
Kevin Fleming, vice chairman of the Rockingham County Democratic Committee, said that Bradley's strength in New Hampshire caught him and other local Democrats off guard. "I'm surprised. Bradley has a lot more support than I thought would be the case," Fleming told CNSNews.com. "New Hampshire Democrats see him as a thoughtful man and are definitely taking him seriously. I expect a very spirited contest."
Lenore Patton, co-chair of the Hampton Town Democratic Committee, echoed some of Fleming's observations, and did not discount the possibility that Bradley could defeat Gore. "Bradley is very well respected and from what I see locally, people are definitely interested, but it is too early to say if he can beat Gore," Patton told CNSNews.com.
Other Democrats also foresee the chance of Bradley defeating Gore in New Hampshire, and indicated that President Bill Clinton could turn into a drag on the Gore campaign.
"Gore is very vulnerable and I don't preclude a Bradley win," said one Manchester activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It would be a mistake to think activists, like myself, who have signed on with the vice president, represent anyone other than ourselves. He needs to loosen up and put some distance between himself and the president."
State Senator Burt Cohen, a Gore supporter, compared the Gore-Bradley contest to some aspects of the 1984 Democratic nomination battle between then Vice President Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. While Mondale's views were well know to voters, Hart, like Bradley, was seen as a clean slate during the early stages of the campaign.
But Cohen also said that the strength of Bradley's challenge could serve to ignite Gore as a candidate. "Bradley should not be dismissed or taken lightly. That means Gore will have to work harder and hopefully Bradley's challenge will mean he'll do just that," Cohen told CNSNews.com.
Other Democrats said Gore must do more than simply change his style, suggesting that aligning himself too much with the Clinton presidency - a natural reaction from an incumbent two-term vice president - could hurt Gore.
"Clinton could be the albatross that does Gore in, " said one party loyalist. "It's time to put some space between himself and the president. But I'll tell you this. If he can do that, he will be a strong candidate. He really wants this and Republicans are making a serious mistake if they continue to underestimate him."