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CAMPAIGN 2000

For Gore, It's a Mix of Substance With an Informal Style

Politics: Daily talks with voters and speeches outlining detailed plans are part of an effort to highlight Democrat's strengths in waning days of campaign.

October 24, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

EVERETT, Wash. — With just two weeks left in the election and millions still to be persuaded, Al Gore tried a new tack Monday in his effort to win hearts and minds, approaching the job one voter at a time.

The vice president launched his first in a series of kitchen-table conversations with an entrepreneur who spoke in highly personal, if somewhat elite, terms about the economic benefits of the last eight years.

"People are much more likely under these circumstances to go out and treat themselves to a $2 or $3 latte, or Oregon Chai," said Heather Howitt, who built a multimillion-dollar Portland, Ore., company selling trendy teas. "I absolutely want to keep that going."

High-end refreshment may not be uppermost in the minds of the working-class families Gore has vowed to champion in the Oval Office. But the intimate setting, at a neighborhood bakery in Portland, and the serious-minded discussion addressed two of his needs in this exceedingly close election: softening his image and persuading people that issues, and not likability, should determine how they vote.

At an airport rally here in Everett, outside Seattle, Gore later explained his return to the substantive style that served him so well in the weeks after the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. As he did then, he drew a sharp contrast with Republican George W. Bush.

"Fifteen days is a long time if you're going to hold the ball and run out the clock," Gore shouted out, promising loads of detail between now and Nov. 7. "Fifteen days is a long time if you're trying to hide behind tracking polls and not engage on the issues because people disagree with you on the issues. That's the dilemma that my opponent faces in the next 15 days."

Then Gore asked the audience: "Are you ready for some details and specifics?" The crowd of several hundred partisans roared its affirmation. With that, the vice president offered one of the most cogent cases he has yet made for his election, citing the 22 million jobs created over the last eight years, the falling crime and unemployment rates as well as the burgeoning federal budget surplus.

The bottom line, he said, "is the strongest economy in the 224-year history of the United States of America."

'We're Not Going Back,' Gore Asserts

On the other hand, Texas Gov. Bush--or "the other side," as Gore preferred--"puts our prosperity at risk," the vice president asserted, by "squandering the surplus on a tax cut for the wealthy."

"We're not going back!" the vice president declared. "We're not going back!"

For all its green splendor, Gore would have preferred not to be here in the Pacific Northwest. But Oregon and Washington state, which voted Democratic in the last three presidential elections, remain too close to call. One reason is Ralph Nader, who threatens to siphon off environmentalist support in a region where the great outdoors is worshiped like a secular religion.

Speaking directly of the Green Party's Nader for one of the few times in the campaign, Gore told reporters aboard Air Force Two: "I will stack my environmental record against anyone, including him. I've never given up on the environment. I've never backed down on the environment and I never will."'

He declined, however, to make the argument others have: that a vote for Nader is akin to a vote for Bush. "That may be true," Gore said. "But my task is to convince them to vote enthusiastically for me."

Daily One-on-One Issue Talks Planned

To that end, Gore began the first of his daily issue-klatsches with Howitt, 32, who turned a love for aromatic teas--and a $50,000 Small Business Administration loan--into an $11-million company, based in a Portland neighborhood of shady trees and prim Victorian homes.

After touring Chai headquarters, with a purple-and-yellow cup of original blend in hand, Gore retired with Howitt to a nearby bakery, where they chatted about issues ranging from taxes to health care to Howitt's challenge bringing 14-month-old Sawyer, her son, to work each day. (She keeps a changing table and windup swing in her office.)

Joined by his daughter Kristin, Gore not so subtly steered the conversation toward his preferred message: the good economic times of these last eight years. In opening, he asked Howitt to discuss "the connection between prosperity and what helped you succeed in this business."

"The economy has been awesome the last eight years," she replied and, further prompted, declared herself "so, so absolutely" against Bush's across-the-board tax cut.

The informal setting and chatty style recalled a technique Gore used for months after clinching the Democratic nomination, when he spent several "school days" at various campuses around the country. The benefit, as the campaign saw it, was an abundance of favorable local news coverage and a chance to place the famously buttoned-down vice president in a setting that seemed to loosen him up just a bit.

"He's at his best when he's there talking to people," said Chris Lehane, the campaign spokesman. "He's genuine and he knows the issues."

The emphasis on issues--to be laid out in a series of policy speeches over the next two weeks--is also an attempt to invite contrasts with the generalized statements of the more engaging Bush and shift the race to Gore's preferred ground.

"This is a race for president," Lehane said, "not prom king."

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