WASHINGTON -- In a heavily promoted shift in strategy, Vice President Al Gore has suddenly turned sunny and positive on the campaign trail after more than a month of almost daily attacks against rival George W. Bush.
Instead, Gore's campaign has turned loose an army of surrogates to take up the cause, and they have risen to the challenge with relentless enthusiasm and efficiency.
Wednesday, for example, as Gore talked about mental health policy in suburban Washington and refrained from criticism of Bush for the second day in a row, the surrogates came at the Republican candidate from at least three directions:
White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, in Lisbon, criticized Bush for turning down an offer from Defense Secretary William S. Cohen for a briefing on missile defense.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., released a copy of a letter, signed by 19 other Democratic colleagues, that he sent to the Bush campaign demanding detailed response to questions about Bush's proposal for partial privatization of Social Security.
Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., initiated telephone calls to reporters traveling with Bush to attack the Texas governor's military record and for questioning Gore's credentials to be commander-in-chief. ''It disturbed me that someone with his level of experience would be questioning the vice president's fitness to be the commander-in-chief,'' said Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran.
Kerry told reporters that he decided to make the calls. In reality, his criticism is part of an aggressive and increasingly well-organized effort by the Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
''You match the message with the messenger,'' one Democratic strategist said of the decision to employ Kerry on military issues.
Already, Thursday's designated Bush basher has been identified by the Gore operation: Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., whose state Bush will be visiting Thursday.
With his negative ratings on the rise, Gore is anxious to recast his attack dog image, and so his campaign wants him to focus on policy issues and personal statements to make him more appealing to voters.
Gore advisers hope the surrogate-led attacks will accomplish the goal of undermining Bush while shielding Gore from the fallout. The vice president is more than sticking to the new script: Not only is he not attacking Bush, he is not even mentioning him.
''Look at the coverage the last couple of days,'' one Gore campaign official noted. ''The coverage will be about Gore talking about his agenda, about his positive agenda, and the compare-and-contrast is usually found within the Bush story.''
Gore advisers said they believed it was essential for the vice president to initiate the first round of attacks against Bush on issues from foreign policy to Social Security. But having done that, they said it was time for Gore to shift gears.
Having advertised the shift in strategy over the weekend, the Gore campaign lost no time in implementing it. On Monday, the newly positive Gore left the dirty work to an official of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and former Veterans Affairs secretary Jesse Brown.
LCV president Deb Callahan, with Gore at her side, accused Bush of befriending ''corporate polluters and lobbyists for timber, mining and oil companies.'' Brown questioned Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, noting that Bush was temporarily allowed out of his commitment to the Guard for several months in 1972 and 1973 to work on a Senate campaign.
''I think this is an issue that he must explain to the American people,'' Brown said during a conference call with reporters arranged by the DNC.
It was a line Kerry repeated Wednesday almost word for word.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said ''Gore surrogates'' were trying to twist the Texas governor's words. Fleischer said Bush never questioned Gore's fitness or preparedness to be commander-in-chief. ''He never made a personal statement,'' Fleischer said, referring to Bush's speech Wednesday. ''The governor made a policy address.''
On Monday, Bush claimed Gore was ''no stranger to exaggeration'' and argued that the vice president had inflated the administration's record on defense issues, adding that the administration's record ''cries out for a new sign on the Pentagon that says, 'Under new management.' ''
Fleischer also rebutted questions about Bush's service in the Guard. Asked if it was true that Bush temporarily left, Fleischer responded: ''Of course he did, with the permission of the Guard, which is not unusual.''
At a news conference late Wednesday in Reno, Bush said he was proud of his service: ''I did my duty. I was honorably discharged. I put in my time. I flew F-102 fighters, and I'm proud of my service. And the next thing was I shouldn't be commenting on whether morale in the United States military is dangerously low. Does he expect me to be silent?''
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