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Gore Campaign Plane Sheds Sparks but Candidate Doesn't Ignite South

February 04, 1988|BOB DROGIN | Times Staff Writer

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The brochure promised an "Escape from Iowa," a soothing Southern swing to the "land of endless sunshine" for reporters weary of sub-zero windchills in the presidential campaign up north.

Not incidentally, the invitation from Democratic candidate Albert Gore Jr., who quit Iowa's caucus contest last fall and scaled back his effort in New Hampshire, also promised to show the earnest young Tennessean strutting his stuff in the South and ready for battle come Super Tuesday.

"We wanted to underscore the contrast to Iowa," Sen. Gore said in an interview early Wednesday aboard a midnight flight from Jacksonville.

That he did.

As Gore spoke, sparks shot out from the sometimes-smoking left engine of the chartered 32-year-old Convair 440 prop plane--a plane that travels with its own mechanic and has the name "Mary" painted in blue under the pilot's window.

"What color sparks?" asked the flight attendant when notified of the light show outside.

"Yellow," she was told.

"Which wing?"

"The left."

"Then it's normal," she responded.

Mishaps and Misadventures

So it went on an 18-hour campaign day plagued by mishaps and misadventures. More important, the day suggested that Gore's long-shot Southern campaign--his only hope to win the Democratic nomination--has yet to spark widespread interest or support in his own backyard.

Gore, who rates an asterisk in Iowa's polls, says the closely watched caucuses next Monday are "a ridiculous test," because Iowa Democrats elect only 58 delegates to the national convention. The 20 Super Tuesday states, including 14 Southern and Border states, will elect 1,149 delegates exactly one month later.

"I think history is passing Iowa by," he said. "This is going to be a contest for Super Tuesday delegates."

Gore's accent is noticeably thicker here than when he debates in Boston or Sioux Falls. The only white Southerner in the Democratic race, he has won dozens of local endorsements, and at 39, he wins praise from retirees for his youthful good looks and podium-pounding calls for "a new American era."

'May Be Another Kennedy'

"He may be another Kennedy," said Sid Goldfarb, 77, one of about 600 seniors, many from New York, who turned out from nearby condominium complexes to hear Gore early Wednesday. "This kid has the strength of youth," agreed Al Ostor, 70.

Others were less impressed. At a grits-and-eggs breakfast Tuesday planned for about 150 members of the Cobb County Democratic Party outside Atlanta, half the tables were empty and several people got up and left during Gore's stump speech.

"Too long," said Maggie Willis, a Gore supporter.

Some of the supporters themselves seemed less than wholehearted. Edwin J. Feiler Jr., a Democratic activist who joined the press bus as tour guide, confided that Gore's "Southern support" would shift "in a nanosecond"--one billionth of a second--if Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn were to enter the race.

"I think Al's everybody's vice-presidential selection," Feiler added, however. "Look, Paul Simon, Mike Dukakis, people here could vote for them too."

Gore said he will spend more than $1 million, "more than any other candidate," for TV ads for Super Tuesday. The goal is to defy history, to rise from the South to challenge the early winner or winners of Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 16.

Small, Inexperienced Staff

But Gore's organization remains small and inexperienced. He has 48 paid staff members in 16 Super Tuesday states, according to Mike Kopp, deputy press secretary. Several rival campaigns have more than 100 staffers in Iowa alone.

And a Roper poll of 5,404 voters in 12 Southern states, published Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, found Gore running first only in his native Tennessee. He was third overall, with 13%, behind the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart. He trailed Michael S. Dukakis in the two most populous Super Tuesday states, Florida and Texas. Nearly a third of those polled were undecided.

Gore's campaign manager, Fred Martin, called the poll "very encouraging." Southern voters, he said, "aren't engaged yet. . . . They're just beginning to focus."

So, apparently, is Gore's campaign.

A sunset rally Tuesday on the picturesque quay of Savannah's scenic waterfront drew fewer than 40 people, mostly tourists who wandered by. Contrary to advance notice, there was no free "fish fry and jazz cruise." Instead, Gore spoke, climbed to the pilot house of a steamboat to toot the whistle several times, and left 30 minutes before schedule.

Crowd Holds Candles

Then on to the Tiger Bay Club, a nonpartisan political club by the water in Jacksonville, Fla. This time, Gore arrived to find a power failure: A downtown transformer had blown three hours earlier, and about 75 people waited with candles and battery-powered floodlights.

The power came back just as Gore began to speak. His stump speech, little changed since last summer, proposes no new programs. Instead, he argues that the United States is "between two eras," mixed with animated appeals for "a fundamentally new approach." It doesn't always work.

"It didn't have a lot of substance," complained Sue Gottesman, an AT&T employee. "I thought it was kind of general, just generalities," agreed Carol Albritton, a high school English teacher.

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