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CAMPAIGN 2000

Gore Is on a Roll Down the River

Campaign: Democratic presidential candidate displays a newfound elation and confidence on tour along the Mississippi. Poll numbers have risen.

August 21, 2000|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLINTON, Iowa — When the history of the 2000 presidential campaign is written, Al Gore's visit to this little Mississippi River town may be just a footnote--or, just perhaps, a turning point. As midnight neared, it was here, with confetti flying, a fast blues number blaring, their hands high overhead, that the vice president and his wife, Tipper, danced on an outdoor stage as though they were at a well-fueled fraternity party.

He looked like he could not have been happier.

"Any smooches, we go up points," a senior advisor joked about the closely watched polls.

Four days after securing the Democratic presidential nomination and three days after beginning a boat and bus trip down the Mississippi, Al Gore, the man so often derided as a campaign robot, has come to life.

To be sure, happier poll reports since the convention have contributed to the sunny demeanor. The latest surveys show either a dead heat or a single-digit lead for either Gore or GOP nominee George W. Bush.

But senior aides also point to Gore's choice of a vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, as a factor, because it helped him emerge from the shadow that is typical for a vice president.

"It was a confidence builder," said a senior aide. "Now he has a No. 2, which makes him No. 1."

Equally important is that the Democrats have long been planning for the post-convention stretch to election day, so they are now armed with a plan of attack and a message that they believe will lead to victory.

On Sunday, Gore displayed the strategy by melding a brief criticism of Republican health-care policies with his stump speech in a way that allowed his staff to argue that he is focusing on issues and specific solutions.

Taken together, the events Saturday night and Sunday reinforced the twin images the Gore campaign is seeking to project--a likable human being and a competent leader. He is the man who would dance onstage to celebrate his wife's 52nd birthday and 12 hours later delve into policy differences with his rival, Bush.

The strategy is a showcase for Gore's strength as a policy wonk while seeking to take advantage of Bush's perceived weaknesses.

Within the Gore camp, aides say this turn is a reflection of the political calendar.

"In the spring, people are getting a general impression of the candidates," said a senior political aide. "In the fall campaign, people start thinking about what's at stake in the election."

So Gore plans to talk about issues--namely, the economy, health care, education and the environment--that appeal to both the Democratic core and the swing voters peeled away from the Democrats by Ronald Reagan in 1980, the aide said.

"The more we get specific, the less the other guy looks specific," he said.

As Gore headed downriver by boat Friday and Saturday, on a bus tour Sunday, and back on the boat today, he has focused on a core message: Keep the economy strong and use it to help all the people, not just the powerful.

On Sunday, in Muscatine, Iowa, Gore attacked Bush's proposals to allow some private investment of Social Security funds. "What exactly is your plan on privatizing Social Security?" Gore rhetorically asked his rival. "Do you want to know the facts?" he asked the crowd. "Yes," came the reply.

"Am I giving you too many specifics?" he added. "No!" his audience, on a sun-drenched courthouse lawn, called back.

Today and the rest of the week, his topic is likely to be tax cuts. Next week he plans to highlight success stories of the past eight years, to make the point that during the Clinton administration, the life of the country has taken great strides.

On Saturday night, before the spirited dance, Gore offered that theme and painted it in a frame of hope, even as he said of the nation, "We got problems, we've got problems aplenty," and pleaded for the citizenry to abandon its distaste for politics and join him:

"You use the word politician out there and you see what goes across people's minds. What do they say? Well, I won't go into it," he said, gaining a knowing laugh from an audience that waited as long as five hours to see the vice president, who was running nearly two hours late.

Gore continued:

"After everything that we've been through since the assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy and Watergate, the Vietnam War, and all the stuff between then and now, it's hard . . . to allow yourself to really believe that somebody who's standing up here in front of you, pledging to work his heart out for you and make this country a better place to the best of his ability, really means it.

"Well, that's what I'm asking you to do. To push past the fear of disappointment, being let down, disillusioned," he said.

At times, and largely out of public view, Gore has presented a relaxed, even playful picture of himself since he left Los Angeles and the Democratic National Convention around midnight Thursday.

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