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Gore's Next Move Is Riverboat Journey Through Heartland

Campaign: Nominee will leave Los Angeles for a 'floating town hall' down the Mississippi, which connects what are expected to be pivotal states.


On his first big trip as his own man, Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to end up in a town that can't help but remind folks about the predecessor whom he's trying desperately to push offstage.

Clinton, Iowa.

"Yeah," said a slightly sheepish Gore spokesman, Douglas Hattaway. "Voters there want to talk about the issues too."

Well, it is on the Mississippi River--right on the path between La Crosse, Wis., to Hannibal, Mo.--where Gore and his entourage will float today through Monday.

Huck Finn might have seen the river as a glimmering avenue for adventure. These days, it's a venue for votes.

So Gore will meander downstream past Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. In an election year in which many states are already spoken for, they loom as undecided and conquerable. Together, they represent 51 electoral votes out of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

Not coincidentally, his Republican rival, George W. Bush, will follow Bush into Wisconsin and Iowa on Monday and Tuesday, three days after the vice president's visit. Later in the week, Bush will visit the two other battleground states, Illinois and Missouri, before heading to Louisiana and Florida.

Ever since Bill Clinton wowed thousands of heartland voters on his triumphant Midwest bus trip in 1992, routine tarmac stops have lost their cachet as a post-convention mode of attention-getting. So it is that Gore and a gaggle of hangers-on will find themselves rolling along aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat, a 120-foot, 400-passenger vessel that has been plying the river for more than 20 years.

Gore officials see the trip as the extension of their pre-convention, get-to-know-Gore tour of powerful states, as well as of the two days of feting he got during the Los Angeles convention.

"He wants to take the campaign straight to the heartland and to the people there, and keep the focus on the issues that matter in their lives," Hattaway said.

It was not that long ago--say, 1976--that the post-convention period was used to merge the ticket's staffs and let the presidential and vice presidential nominees get their idiosyncrasies down.

But in this era of never-ending news cycles, the post-convention trip has taken on the kind of political importance once reserved for the Labor Day kickoff. That has particularly been the case since Clinton turned his meandering, 1,004-mile tour of the nation's midsection into the kind of glowing publicity for which candidates would kill.

Bush tried his own attention-getting endeavor after his convention, hopping aboard the rails for a three-day, four-state tour of roughly the same area Gore will ply. In Bush's case, his 16-car train took him through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. All four states voted for the Democratic ticket in 1996 but are up for grabs this year.

The dueling candidates will focus on two issues that are fighting for preeminence this year, with Gore accenting health care and Bush education.

"Gov. Bush will continue talking about specific ideas and policy positions, starting with his No. 1 priority, education," said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan. "This is a positive campaign of ideas."

Gore, in his trip, will invite people onto the riverboat for, in effect, floating "town halls" on issues like health insurance, a patients' bill of rights and Medicare.

As for Clinton--the town--it has no connection to the current inhabitant of the White House. It was named after a former state governor, DeWitt Clinton of New York, who served almost two centuries ago.

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