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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Gore's Big Speech Elicits Cheers, Worries

The convention audience offers vocal approval, but analysts worry that his effort might compare unfavorably to Clinton's and could fail to convince crucial undecided voters.

August 18, 2000|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The stakes were high but expectations were low when Al Gore mounted the podium to give his acceptance speech: The fate of his campaign might hang in the balance, but no one expected him to be as eloquent as William Jennings Bryan.

He wasn't, but he was good enough for the delegates who have been laboring all week to put their party's corrosive factionalism behind them and get psyched for the battle ahead.

"I'm juiced up!" said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles).

But the question is whether Gore's speech--and the convention as a whole--is the political equivalent of a sugar high, a sudden burst of energy that quickly fades, or more solid sustenance for a long, tough campaign ahead.

"It's not going to be for the fainthearted," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "It's going to be a tough race."

Although Gore's speech clearly galvanized the thousands of party activists in the convention hall, it is less clear how it was received by the swing voters watching from afar.

"I think he did everything he could, everything he could," said Andrew Brody, a 29-year-old youth counselor from Wisconsin. "If this doesn't change Americans' minds about him, nothing could."

Said Will Marshall, head of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute: "It played well in the hall. I'm not sure how its going to play with those undecided swing voters."

The spotlight turned on Gore at a difficult time. He's been running behind George W. Bush in the polls. The convention has been sending mixed messages and was marred by factional squabbling. It often seemed Democrats were rallying less out of enthusiasm for Gore than out of fear of the alternative.

"This is not the second coming," grumbled one liberal Democrat. "This is not a rock star at the top of the ticket."

It was clear that his acceptance speech was Gore's best opportunity to establish himself as, if not a rock star, someone who can at least carry a tune.

Some delegates were even expecting Gore to flop--especially in contrast to the bravura valedictory of President Clinton on Monday night and the affecting speech of running mate Joseph I. Lieberman on Wednesday. "Gore is just so bo-r-r-r-ing," said one Tennessee delegate.

Nerves were jangling enough that some Gore supporters were trying to lower expectations even before he took the podium.

"What worries me is that people will expect instant bounce," said Bill Lynch, a New York delegate. "But a bounce in the polls like the Republicans got after Philadelphia is fool's gold."

The convention was almost over, and still Gore was a candidate whom many felt had not yet connected with voters on a personal level, who had not yet managed to drive home how his presidency would be different from Bush's.

His introduction to the crowd came in a biographical video about Gore and his family, which some delegates said sold them on Gore even more than the speech itself.

Said Sandra Hudgens of Las Vegas: "We got into his family life this week, and tonight I really felt I got to know him." But in his speech, Gore also tried to introduce himself anew as a politician stepping outside of Clinton's shadow. The same crowd that swooned over Clinton's speech three nights leaped to its feet when Gore issued his declaration of independence: "I stand here tonight as my own man, and I want you to know who I truly am."

The same crowd that went wild over Lieberman--whose heresies against liberal orthodoxy, including support for experiments in school vouchers--applauded madly when Gore said flat-out he would never go along with such a plan.

Many were delighted with the contrast between Gore's substance-heavy address and what they heard at the GOP convention, which they saw as long on feel-good rhetoric and short on policy detail. Gore's point-by-point agenda also drew a far brighter line between the parties--making plain why they should be for the Democratic ticket, not just against the Republicans.

"He gave us specific differences between us and them and no one can vote Republican once they can understand those differences," said Nancy Harkess, a delegate from Las Vegas.

Gore also won them over with his self-effacing acknowledgment of his own shortcomings--his lack of pizazz and his tendency to dwell wonkishly on policy. One of his biggest applause lines was an allusion to Bush's more amiable personality.

"The presidency is more than a popularity contest," he said. "It's a day-by-day fight for people."

" I think it showed Al Gore, with all of his substance, doesn't have to play to be a movie star," said Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Petaluma).

Many people thought it was one of Gore's best speeches, but that didn't mean it was soaring oratory.

"He has no passion for rhetorical flourish but he's solid as a rock," said H. William DeWeese, a Democratic state legislator from Pennsylvania who came to the convention as a Bill Bradley delegate.

Still, it was enough to inspire some doubters.

"I came in tentative," said Evi Kritt, an attorney from Thousand Oaks. "But I am enthusiastic now. . . . I think he really spoke from the heart."

*

Times staff writers Geraldine Baum, Cathleen Decker, Michael Finnegan, Faye Fiore, Megan Garvey, Jeff Leeds and Richard Simon contributed to this story.

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