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Gore's River Trip Plays Well in Media

Democrats: Candidate's Mississippi shoreline backdrop offers scenic visuals for national TV, fills small-town newspapers. He presses Bush to debate.


QUINCY, Ill. — When Vice President Al Gore floated into this riverfront hamlet Monday, the headline in the Quincy Herald-Whig trumpeted his visit as "a Once in a Lifetime Event."

That's just the sort of coverage Gore aides have been courting over the last four days as the vice president winds his way through the folksy hamlets dotting the banks of the Mississippi River.

Community newspapers along the route have tracked Gore's progress since the cruise began Friday; some published special editions, others ran graphics mapping the course of his riverboat.

But for all its small-town charm, the voyage has generated some big-city exposure. Four of the nation's top television markets--Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City and Milwaukee--also gave the excursion extensive air time.

Gore aides were ecstatic. The trip generated pages of favorable local coverage at the same time that the heartland scenery played well on the national news. "We hit for the cycle," said spokesman Chris Lehane.

This year's presidential campaigns have paid special attention to local media, hoping they will reach voters with a message that isn't cluttered with the political analysis typical of national reporters.

Local news "is a way to directly communicate with the people," said Lehane. "The local news wants to report the information straight. They are less caught up in the process of politics."

When Gore arrived here Monday, his campaign was welcomed by a four-page special section in the Quincy Herald-Whig packed with more than half a dozen staff-written stories and color photos largely favorable to the campaign. One story written by wire services reported on Republican rival George W. Bush's daily event.

WGEM, a local television station in Quincy, broadcast a 6 a.m. news show from the rally site. When Gore arrived six hours later, the station broadcast the campaign rally live from noon to 1:30 p.m. It also covered the preparations on its cable channel from 7 a.m. to noon and streamed the entire event on the Web.

"We don't have big news like this every day," said station operations manager Jim Lawrence.

Bush's post-convention train trip generated similar headlines in local papers across the Midwest, not to mention major market TV coverage.

Ironically, Gore used the picturesque riverboat Monday to portray himself as a candidate offering "substance and not just sound bites." He hammered at the idea that he has offered details for his policy proposals, unlike his opponent.

"I do think from the reaction I'm getting from these people out in these crowds that the risk I took in talking about specifics has paid off, because people appreciate the effort to lift the tone of the campaign to substance and not just sound bites, although that itself is a sound bite," he told reporters Monday.

Gore also opened a new attack on his Republican opponent Monday, charging that Bush was "procrastinating" by not agreeing to three debates that have been scheduled by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

Gore said he "immediately" agreed to the commission's October debates.

"My opponent has not [accepted] and apparently wants to see if he can get away with some Sunday morning talk show when nobody is watching much," Gore said. "It is unprecedented in modern times for a major party candidate to try to stiff the prime-time commission debates. I think that he's probably engaging in what will turn out to be a vain effort to do that."

Ray Sullivan, a Bush spokesman, said all of the debate proposals are still under consideration.

"It just goes to show that Vice President Gore will attack any announcement on any issue," he said. "The fact is that Gov. Bush has always said he would debate in the fall. . . . Everything is on the table right now."

Gore's stern-wheeler arrived Monday in Hannibal, Mo., the hometown of Samuel Clemens. And along the way, it picked up a handful of locals from Canton, Mo., for a "floating town hall" that focused on the vice president's tax cut plan.

Seizing on a line of attack he used at the Democratic Party's convention last week, Gore criticized the tax relief for average families under Bush's plan.

Bush campaign officials responded that Gore's plan is "narrow" and would provide no relief to 50 million taxpayers.

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