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CAMPAIGN 2000

Vice President Crafting Speech on 'Clear, Stark' Contrasts

August 15, 2000|DOYLE McMANUS and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Vice President Al Gore, seeking to change the focus of the presidential campaign from personalities to issues, says he plans to use his acceptance speech Thursday to give voters a "clear, stark . . . [and] specific" contrast between his positions and those of Republican nominee George W. Bush.

In an interview between campaign appearances and private bouts of speech-polishing on his laptop computer, Gore said his main themes will include Social Security and tax cuts, issues on which the two major candidates differ sharply.

In short, the vice president's acceptance speech, the most important of his 25-year political career, will try to address the conundrum that has bedeviled Democratic strategists all year: Many swing voters agree with Gore on the issues yet seem drawn to Bush as a more appealing leader.

"I think that this campaign is an opportunity to make some clear choices about what we're going to do for the next four years," Gore said.

"I will offer specifics . . . putting it in clear, stark terms and showing the effect on working families, in comparison to the effect of my opponent's proposals."

By hammering at the details of Social Security and tax cuts, Gore indicated that he hopes to prod Bush into a more explicit debate about them.

"I rather doubt that my opponent can make it to the end of the campaign without answering questions about where this trillion dollars for privatization will come from, and other questions of that sort," Gore said, referring to Bush's proposal to allow workers to invest some of their Social Security tax payments in individual accounts.

Public opinion polls, including a Times Poll released today, show that most voters agree with Democratic positions on Social Security and taxes. But a substantial percentage of those who agree are inclined to vote for Bush.

Gore has said he also hopes to use the speech to establish himself in voters' eyes as a confident leader in his own right, not just "a vice president" in the shadow of President Clinton. Nevertheless, his speech (estimated length 45 minutes but still unfinished) borrows at least one feature from Clinton's rhetorical successes over the last eight years.

"Think of this as like those long Clinton State of the Union speeches with lots of specific proposals," Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said. "The pundits panned them. But the people loved them."

'Straight From My Heart'

In a 35-minute talk in the back seat of his White House limousine en route to his hotel Sunday night, Gore offered a limited sneak preview of his speech, promising plenty of specifics but giving none away.

Asked if he plans to unveil new proposals, he replied elliptically: "You'll see a lot of freshness."

In addition to Social Security and tax policy, he said the speech will touch on Medicare, education, the environment and quality-of-life issues, among other topics.

"I hope people enjoy it," he said. "I think that they will find it different. It's highly personal in parts, because I am writing it, and what they hear will be straight from my heart. And some people may not like it. That's fine. But I hope that most will."

He said he is determined to keep the speech "positive," with "no negative personal attacks" on Bush--even as he criticizes the Republican's positions on the issues.

"I think that when you hear the speech, you will consider it to be somewhat unusual in its determinedly positive tone, its relative lack of any mention of the opposition," he said. "There will be some, but only in the context of issues."

When asked if he believes Bush stepped across the line into personal invective in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia two weeks ago, Gore nodded and said: "I was surprised--genuinely surprised--I guess because I believed the pre-convention promises that they wouldn't stoop to that."

If voters compare his speech to Bush's, "side by side, they will definitely see a different tone," Gore said. "Definitely."

The vice president pronounced his decision to talk about policy specifics "a risk."

Most candidates "don't want to be pinned down, and it's easier to be all things to all people if you're not specific," he said. "I think people are kind of tired of that approach, myself. And I hope that I'm proven right. But that's why it's a risk.

"It's a risky speech scheme," he joked, slyly mocking--as Bush did in his acceptance speech two weeks ago--his own frequent references to what he calls the GOP's "risky tax scheme."

But asked whether he considers himself a risk-taker, Gore paused for 11 seconds of wary silence--and then gave an answer suffused with his habitual caution.

"I'm pausing on this answer because I don't want to risk a mistake," he said wryly. "I think that if you don't make some mistakes, you're not trying hard enough. You've got to try new things in public policy in order to push the boundaries of what works. But I think the risks you take should be reasonable and considered."

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