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Aspiring Candidate Gore Takes Off the Jacket, Puts on the Charm

Campaign: The vice president's presidential chances could hinge on his up-close encounters with common folks in Iowa and New Hampshire. He's trying to doff his button-down image.

April 18, 1999|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WATERLOO, Iowa — Call it Al Gore's "living room" strategy.

Dogged by an image as a stiff Ken doll, the vice president is launching a charm offensive.

By presenting himself in small, informal settings such as living rooms, diners and jogging trails, the vice president hopes to demonstrate that he can empathize with common folk--one key to his electability as president.

If Gore's up-close style goes over well in Iowa and New Hampshire, those early caucus and primary states where personal politics is almost as sacred as religion, he could gain the momentum to wrap up the Democratic nomination within a year. If not, he could limp into the convention in Los Angeles a clouded candidate.

A New Campaign Style

The vice president's efforts take on fresh urgency because, as he seeks to reintroduce himself to a public that does not know him well, he has stumbled recently.

The son of a prominent senator, Gore grew up in an upscale hotel along Washington's Embassy Row and attended one of the capital's toniest private schools. Perhaps for that reason, Gore was ridiculed when he reminisced recently about performing backbreaking farm chores--even though his father indeed assigned him such chores every summer on the family farm in Carthage, Tenn.

After serving in Vietnam as an Army journalist, Gore became a journalist and then a politician, where he advocated policies that fostered high-tech innovations. But he did not, contrary to what he recently told CNN, take "the initiative in creating the Internet."

Although each assertion contained essential truths, Gore's missteps were fresh reminders to nervous Democrats that campaigning still does not come easily to their probable 2000 standard-bearer even after 16 years in Congress and six more as America's 45th vice president. A poll released Saturday underscored potential image problems that Gore faces. The survey by the Pew Research Center found his favorability rating at 47%, down from 58% in December.

The poll also showed Gore's backing among women lagging significantly below the support President Clinton received in 1996.

Clinton is among those who have encouraged Gore to embrace retail politicking in Iowa and New Hampshire. More than once, he has urged Gore to "go up there, take your jacket off and just be yourself, Al."

And at moments when Clinton thought Gore might be feeling discouraged, the president has reminded Gore that in June 1992, just five months before election day, "I was in third place," behind then-President Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot.

Newly bolstered, Gore practiced some serious retail politicking on a two-day swing through Iowa earlier this month en route home from California.

As soon as Air Force Two taxied to a stop on a lovely spring afternoon, he worked a rope line with enthusiasm, petting a miniature Doberman pinscher, inquiring about a man's recent vacation to St. Lucia and then exchanging bear hugs with Jack Rubly, whom he instantly recognized as an Iowan who had worked as a Gore coordinator in his failed 1988 presidential bid.

Then he traveled by motorcade to a Victorian-style bed-and-breakfast inn where 60 residents and Democratic Party activists were waiting.

"House parties," some Gore aides now refer to such gatherings.

For the next hour, a shirt-sleeved Gore mixed and mingled, campaigning the old-fashioned way: one voter at a time. And, by the time he addressed the crowd and took questions, Gore had his audience pegged.

With the white-haired set, he touted insurance coverage for prescription drugs and pledged to maintain benefits to veterans--of which he is one, as he noted.

With their 29th wedding anniversary coming up, he and Tipper are about to become grandparents, a beaming Gore told the crowd. "So we're in the market for grandparents lessons," he said with a choirboy smile as cheers and applause erupted.

"That's cute," gushed an older woman in the back of the large living room.

With baby boomers, Gore talked of the need for long-term care insurance and the strain of caring for aging parents.

With young children and their parents, he promoted day care and tax credits for college tuition and vowed, above all, to work with all his might to keep reducing class sizes in every public school in the land.

By the time Gore was done, most people in the Daisy Wilton Inn in Waterloo seemed charmed. Many signed up to volunteer.

"He's very charismatic--a lot different than what I've heard and read about," said Steve Abbott, 33, a telephone company technician. Jerry Hageman, a co-worker, agreed. "He seems to have overcome that stiff and boring image," Hageman said. "And he seems to be able to think on his feet. That, I like."

Valeria Martin, 72, said she also was surprised to find Gore so personable--contrary to his image on television. "He seems real nice and so down to earth," she said.

As it turned out, Gore had only begun warming to the task of one-on-one courtship.

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