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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Gore Camp Will Sell the Man, Not the Politician

Strategists say he is well known, not known well. So the speeches are focusing on his personal life.

August 17, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

When friends from every significant moment of Al Gore's life take the stage tonight at the Democratic National Convention, they will peel back the curtain on one of his campaign's central strategic calculations.

To a far greater extent than rival George W. Bush, Gore is betting on biography as a means of reaching voters.

Bush has talked less about his life story than almost any presidential candidate in recent memory. But inside the Gore camp, it has become an article of faith that the vice president cannot win the voters' ears on policy until they like him better personally--and that voters will, in fact, like him more once they know more about him.

"Our principal communication goal, certainly through the next few weeks, is to get people to know Al Gore better as a person," said Tad Devine, a senior advisor to the Gore campaign.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 18, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Convention photo--Some colors were distorted in a photograph Thursday of Hadassah Lieberman during her speech at the Democratic National Convention. Lieberman was wearing a blue dress as she introduced her husband, vice presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman, not a pink dress as the photograph showed.

With that priority, the Gore campaign is making extraordinary efforts at this convention to highlight his life story. On Wednesday night, nominating speeches from actor Tommy Lee Jones and Gore's daughter Karenna Gore Schiff struck highly personal notes; tonight, no fewer than nine friends--ranging from celebrated author David Halberstam to Gore's brother-in-law Frank Hunger--will recount critical moments from the vice president's past. Later, Gore's wife, Tipper, will introduce him with a speech expected to focus more on their personal life than his public life.

In this emphasis on biography, the Gore campaign is confronting two distinct problems. Call them the Clinton problem and the Gore problem.

By stressing his family life, the campaign hopes to reclaim voters disappointed by Clinton's personal behavior. Perhaps even more important, the campaign believes that fleshing out Gore's life before Washington will soften perceptions of him as the consummate calculating politician--a man with more ambition than conviction.

"It's essential that people begin to reevaluate him, because many people think he's not quite honest, he's a political opportunist, and they question his motivations," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Tonight's program--capped by Gore's acceptance speech--may be the best, if not the last, opportunity for the vice president to change those crippling assessments. Unless he succeeds, his own senior aides believe he will have a hard time gaining much ground, even on issues where polls show that most Americans agree with him.

On that point, the Bush campaign agrees--although it is skeptical that Gore can solve the problem by filling in more details about his life before he was elected vice president in 1992. Bush advisors believe that voters who find Gore uninspiring or insincere today won't necessarily change their views simply by learning more about his past.

"They are saying the same thing differently as I am: This guy has a messenger problem," said Matthew Dowd, polling director for the Bush campaign. "People discount what he says, no matter what he does, unless they separate him from his political life. I just think it is going to be very difficult to convince the American people that there is an Al Gore who is not a politician."

Gore's camp recognizes that no single argument, or biographical fact, can convert voters who are skeptical about his motivations. But they believe, with a near religious conviction, that they can soften that resistance by framing his tenure as vice president inside a broader biographical picture that connects his experiences more closely to the lives of average Americans.

In that effort, the convention is stressing two central messages. One (which offers the added benefit of subtly separating him from Clinton) is "Al Gore: family man." On Wednesday night, his daughter Karenna spoke intimately about the vice president as a father.

The other is "Al Gore: man of principle." In his remarks, Tommy Lee Jones, a friend since college, tried to humanized Gore by recalling a young man who "shot pool . . . and watched Star Trek." Other friends tonight, and likely Gore in his speech, will portray a religious and empathetic man who returned from Vietnam disillusioned by politics, pursued a newspaper reporting career and decided to run for Congress in 1976 only after concluding that it was the best way to improve society.

They will paint him as a committed legislator with a long history of pursuing tough fights.

All of this stands in stark contrast to what happened at the Republican convention. Apart from a brief reference in Laura Bush's speech to her husband reading "Hop on Pop" to their twin daughters, and some broad reflections in Bush's own speech about the baby boomers' journey from rebellion to parenthood, the convention said almost nothing about his life story.

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