BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Albert Gore Jr. still travels coach class on commercial airlines as he campaigns, carries his own luggage and goes unrecognized as he darts through countless airports.
Yet here in the South, at least, the obscure frequent flyer from Tennessee seems on the verge of winning the political equivalent of a first-class upgrade for his fledgling candidacy.
"He's making a strong move in Alabama right now," says John Baker, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party. "There has been significant movement towards Gore in the state in the last 10 days."
"I've run four statewide campaigns here myself, so I have a feel for when there is momentum--and right now I feel a strong groundswell in Alabama for Gore," adds Alabama Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., who endorsed Gore last week.
Indeed, after months of running at the heels of his better-known Democratic rivals, the 39-year-old Tennessee senator has suddenly burst into the limelight on the strength of a wave of support from Democrats all across his home region.
Gore's new Southern surge has been sparked largely by his performances in a series of recent televised debates among the Democratic candidates, forums that he has successfully used to distance himself from his more liberal rivals on national security and defense issues in order to appeal to white Southern voters.
By staking out moderate positions on a range of foreign policy and military matters, while at the same time blasting what he depicts as the very liberal positions of his rivals, Gore has emerged from the debates looking like the only hawk in the Democratic field.
Gore likes to say that makes him the most electable Democrat, a major selling point in a party that has won only one of the last five presidential elections. "I have aimed my campaign message at Democrats who believe themselves to be realists, and who look at issues one by one without applying ideological tests," Gore says. "The receptivity to that message is greater this year than ever before, both in the South and across the country, simply because there is such an intense desire among Democrats to win."
Coupled with the fact that he is the only Southerner in the race, Gore's hard-line rhetoric has given him a new allure in the South, especially among local party leaders and wealthy fund-raisers in the region who had previously delayed committing to any candidate in the hope that Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the party's leading expert on defense matters, would enter the race.
Here in Alabama, for instance, where Gore is mounting an intensive campaign, his tough talk has struck an especially responsive chord.
"I started being on Gore's team when the rest of the field left us out in left field on defense and foreign policy," says Earl Goodwin, a powerful Alabama state senator from Selma. "I'm a conservative, and I consider him a conservative. We all better start kissing that flag again. We've got to have a candidate who is going to listen to these kinds of things."
Gore is hoping to use such conservative support to take full advantage of the 1988 political calendar, which is designed to give Southern voters a bigger say in choosing the Democratic presidential nominee. The advent of what amounts to a Southern regional primary on Super Tuesday, March 8--right after the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire--has handed native-son Gore an opportunity to gain national visibility early in the race by appealing to the South's traditional support for a strong military.
Not That Far Right
Still, Gore's stands on the major defense and foreign policy questions of the day are not all that far to the right of the other Democrats. He opposes military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, for instance, supports the War Powers Act and continued observance of the ABM and Salt II nuclear arms treaties and is against an early deployment of a "Star Wars" space defense shield.
He differs from the rest of the field mainly in areas where his rivals' more liberal positions seem to have less popular support. He rejects a total ban on ballistic missile flight tests, supports humanitarian aid for the Contras under the terms of the Arias peace plan, backs the use of the U.S. Navy in escorting reflagged Kuwaiti tankers through the Persian Gulf and believes the 1983 Granada invasion represented a proper use of American force.
So instead of major substantive distinctions, it has been his strident tone in recent debates more than anything else--most notably his repeated charge that the party's other candidates support defense policies that would foster "retreat, complacency and doubt"--that has won over Southern Democrats.