WASHINGTON -- Al Gore is performing worse than expected in a handful of states carried by Democrats since 1988, a sign that his political base needs shoring up in the race for the 270 electoral votes required to win the White House.
In Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington state and Wisconsin -- all carried by Democratic presidential candidates in the last three elections -- the most recent polling showed Gore trailing or tied with Republican rival George W. Bush.
''This is obviously troubling for Gore. Those are states he should have in his pocket right now,'' said Democratic consultant Dane Strother.
Political analysts expect Gore to reverse his fortunes in these Democratic bastions, but they said Bush's early strength suggests he is doing a better job of appealing to independent-minded voters.
The vice president allowed himself to be sidetracked by the Elian Gonzalez controversy and wasn't helped by recent reminders of Clinton-Gore scandals. In some places, such as Oregon and Washington state, local issues have hurt him, analysts said.
''What's going on here is remarkable because this is his base. It's a shaky base right now'' said Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
National polls give Bush a slight edge over Gore or show the race a statistical dead heat. The campaign for all-important state electoral votes also is close: Gore leads in 10 states with 146 electoral votes and Bush leads in 14 states with 144, according to an analysis of recent polls.
In the most hotly contested battleground, a band of swing states from Missouri to New Jersey, polls show a tight race -- though Bush has a six- to eight-point lead in Ohio and Gore is considered just as strong in New Jersey.
''Al Gore's in great shape with both general election voters and Democratic voters because he's in the right place on the issues,'' said spokesman Chris Lehane. ''It's Al Gore who's protecting Social Security. It's Al Gore who would protect Medicare and Al Gore who will put real investment into expanding health care and resources into our schools.''
Yet Gore's message has yet to take hold on the friendliest of turf, according to Democrats and independent analysts in the five traditionally Democratic states, which have a total of 46 electoral votes.
''A lot of people just aren't tuned into the race yet and people really don't know a lot about Bush and what his record really is,'' said Kasey Kincaid, a Democratic activist from Des Moines, Iowa. ''This early, people are willing to take a look at Bush but once they start looking at the issues, they'll come back to Gore.''
He said Bush is benefiting from a monthlong spree of policy addresses designed to court swing voters, particularly women. The Texan has promised better schools, affordable health care, bipartisanship in Washington and housing for low-income Americans.
''Bush really has been -- for those paying attention -- a lot more prominent in the news in recent weeks,'' Kincaid said.
The vice president has kept a low profile after knocking Bill Bradley from the Democratic race. And his most high-profile moment, siding with Cuban-Americans on the Gonzalez case, didn't help.
''He has created a lot of publicity for himself with a position that reinforces negative feelings people have about him -- that he shifts with the wind, panders, is not trustworthy,'' Schier said.
Trying to forge a centrist message of his own, Gore delivered a me-too speech on education last week and plans, in a crime address Tuesday, to call for a greater focus on drug rehabilitation for convicted felons and to question Bush's commitment on that and other crime issues.
In Wisconsin, Democratic National Committee member Ken Opin said Bush is being helped by the popularity of Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. The nation's 32 GOP governors are Bush's political base, a symbol of the pragmatic, centrist governing philosophy he promises to bring to Washington if elected.
''There may be some carry over from Thompson who is enormously popular,'' Opin said. ''But that can only get Bush so far, at least I hope.''
In Washington and Oregon, pollster Tim Hibbitts said both states are in play for Bush ''and that's not good news for Gore.''
''Bush has been able to portray himself, despite a brutal primary, as a centrist Republican,'' Hibbitts said.
Voters in the Northwest also tend to be independent-minded, and may be open to throwing Democrats out of the White House ''just for the sake of change,'' he said.
Analysts in Washington state say Gore is being hurt by his refusal to rule out breaching Snake River dams, an act that Republicans argue would hurt the state's economy. And GOP operatives suspect they can get some mileage out of the Justice Department's antitrust lawsuit against Seattle-based Microsoft.
In each of the states, analysts said news of Clinton-Gore scandals are bound to take a toll. While Bush pushed his centrist proposals, Justice Department lawyers interviewed Gore about his 1996 fund-raising activities and the Whitewater prosecutor showed signs of continued interest in his varied cases.
''The only thing that can beat Al Gore are Republican investigations,'' Strother said. ''Let's not kid ourselves; they're going to be tuning up this stuff all the way to November.''
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