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ELECTIONS '96

Campaign '96: A Liberating Experience for Gore

Politics: Often caricatured as a stolid orator, the vice president has evolved into an entertaining stump speaker.

November 07, 1996|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND — During the last joint campaign appearance of their political partnership, President Clinton watched with slack-jawed amazement as Vice President Al Gore delivered an animated, rapid-fire introduction that filled the field house at Cleveland State University with chortles and applause.

When Gore uttered a particularly punchy line, Clinton lost his composure--covering his crimson face with his hands, rocking his head backward and wiping away tears of laughter.

"I do not know what the vice president ate for breakfast this morning," Clinton said as he took the podium a few minutes later. "But if he had two more bites of it, he would have blown the roof off."

Long caricatured as a political stiff with a somnolent speaking style, Gore, as he crisscrossed the country this fall, underwent a metamorphosis. Even as he continued to poke fun at his image as a solid but stolid orator, he was evolving into an entertaining stump speaker who kept his crowds hanging on his jokes, delighted them with his comic facial expressions and occasionally brought them to their feet with rhetoric.

No one seems more charmed by the unleashing of Al Gore than Al Gore.

"I have benefited from low expectations," Gore joked Wednesday to a handful of reporters traveling with him on Air Force Two. "Don't blow it for me."

But it is obvious that Gore--as well as his political advisors and his staff--considered the campaign that culminated Tuesday in the reelection of the Democratic presidential ticket as a successful dress rehearsal for his own run for the White House in the year 2000.

"I've grown as a public servant and a communicator during the campaign," Gore told his tiny press corps on the way from Little Rock, Ark., where he had joined Clinton in celebrating their victory, to Washington.

"These campaigns force those who want the confidence of the American people to go out and really work hard and hustle and make a connection with the American people and respond to them," he continued. "If you throw your whole heart into that, you can't help but learn a lot in the process, and I think I have learned a lot."

And Gore clearly put his heart into it. He stuck with the same skeleton of a speech that he started with after the Democratic National Convention in August, but he worked on his delivery, honing his timing and rhythm and adding new jokes and dramatic flourishes.

He credits his eldest daughter, Karenna, who traveled with him throughout the campaign, with playing the most important day-to-day role in improving his performance. But it is from studying Clinton over the last four years that Gore best learned how to connect with his audiences.

Gore consistency hit his oratory stride in appearances at black churches. In Detroit last Sunday, Gore had the whole congregation of Greater Grace Temple of the Apostolic Faith on its feet with his version of favorite Bible stories with political twists.

"Al Gore is something else," Fred Durhal, 44, said after the vice president had finished. "We gotta ordain him."

As Gore explained, it was a long way from his first attempt at giving a political speech at a church when he was campaigning for his father, then-Sen. Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee.

Then in his early 20s and feeling awkward talking politics in church, Gore stood up at the microphone and talked shyly about God. When he finished, the preacher took his place and said, "What he meant to say was vote for Albert Gore."

It was this same public bashfulness, those close to Gore say, that seemed to have finally dissolved during the last few weeks of the '96 campaign. As a result, his audiences got to see a side of him that previously was obvious only to his close associates and friends.

"Something has happened to make him really let loose of his shyness," said Bob Squier, a political strategist who has worked with the vice president since his first congressional campaign in 1975. "There are parts of his speech where he growls, and [his audiences] love it."

At campaign appearances, Gore made no secret of his future intentions. In one of the many laugh lines he incorporated into his basic speech, Gore tells the crowd why he likes the vice presidential seal so much:

"If you look at that seal, close your left eye and turn your head just right, it says President of the United States," Gore would say, closing his eye and tilting his head as he does. "It gives me a thrill every time I do that!"

Gore clearly had his eye on that prize during his stump appearances in the last few days of the campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two traditional starting points in presidential primary campaigns where he performed badly during his unsuccessful White House bid in 1988.

When Gore walked out on stage for a rally in Derry, N.H., last Friday, his eye spied a homemade sign that read: "12 more years!"

He clasped his heart with his right hand, and mouthed the words "Thank you."

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