The trouble with Al Gore

In Texas, all his flaws were on display: woodenness, diffidence, lack of a common touch
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The Independent Culture
UNFURL YOUR banners, dust off those pompons and yell out the hurrahs! This morning, Vice-President Al Gore steps out for his Washington debut as president-to-be. His Cybersite (www.algore is aquiver with anticipation, but not - alas for Mr Gore - the nation's capital. Replete from holiday beach parties and barbecues, Washington is just not in the mood for Al Gore. The question is: will it ever be?

Al Gore's "coming-out" party is Women for Gore, a mass gathering of female Democrats flown and bused in to lend their support. The event, like so much that Mr Gore says and does, has been meticulously planned to convey all the "right" messages. And, like so much that Mr Gore says and does, it will convey a few more besides: precisely the wrong ones.

The very fact that Women for Gore is the Vice-President's first Washington rally tells this politically attuned city something quite different: that Al Gore has a "woman problem". It is not the same sort of "woman problem" as the President has - perish the thought - but it is a problem none the less, and one that his advisers wanted to tackle early.

Women's support for Bill Clinton won him two presidential elections and helped him survive a sex scandal. But the good-looking Mr Gore, who is by every account an admirable husband and father, is running 7 per cent behind the current Republican favourite, George W Bush, among women voters. Mr Gore may be decent and dependable, but he is not exciting. The frisson of danger that hovers when Bill Clinton gets anywhere near women is missing around Mr Gore - which is not necessarily a bad thing - but so is the magnetism, and magnetism translates into votes, at least in America.

Mr Gore will have two other liabilities at today's gathering. The first is summed up in a word: Hillary. The second is Al himself.

Mrs Clinton could hardly have been left off the invitation list, and once invited, she could hardly stay away. As last year's mid-term election campaign showed, she is a big asset to the Democratic Party and enhances its appeal to women voters. She is friendly with Tipper Gore, and the two appear comfortable sharing a platform - unlike, in recent months, their husbands.

But Hillary's presence has minuses as well as pluses for Mr Gore. Political America is agog to learn whether she will run for the Senate for New York. She promised a preliminary decision after the holiday weekend - which is now. The focus on her today will be as much of a distraction for the Vice-President's audience as it could be for his fund-raising and publicity efforts in the campaign proper.

In the greater scheme of Al Gore's campaign to be president, of course, today's gathering is a mere fragment. But as an early attempt to solve a problem and court a constituency, it is a telling one, exemplifying both the positives and the negatives in Mr Gore's flagging bid to succeed his boss.

Increasingly, it seems that Al Gore may have the capacity to lose it for Al Gore. The most recent polls place Mr Gore 13 points behind George W Bush in a one-to-one contest (54-41). They also show Mr Gore's popularity ratings falling over the past month for no obvious reason - and despite, at times, frantic efforts by his supporters, including President Clinton, to rescue him.

After Mr Gore's much-ridiculed claim to have invented the Internet, Mr Clinton praised his efforts to shepherd Internet-related legislation through Congress. Then environmental groups complained that Mr Gore had done little to ensure that the US met its undertakings on global warming, and Mr Clinton replied in his defence. But when a New York Times reporter called the White House to check a report that Mr Clinton was concerned about the slow start to the Gore campaign, Mr Clinton called the amazed reporter to say that while he had been a little worried at the outset, he was not any more.

Mr Clinton's freelance "spin-doctoring" infuriated Mr Gore, who had not been apprised of this effort on his behalf. So last week, in an apparent effort to make amends, Mr Clinton flew to support a campaign appearance by Mr Gore in southern Texas, lauding him for his "unparalleled combination of creativity and energy, experience and determination". Mr Gore, though, could capitalise neither on Mr Clinton's praise nor on the enthusiasm he had whipped up in the audience. Mr Clinton's political flair served only to underline his deputy's lack of it, and Mr Gore's stilted and jargon- ridden speech had even so well-disposed an audience fidgeting within minutes.

What happened in Texas, where Al Gore had hoped to take the battle to his chief Republican rival - George W Bush is state governor - was quintessential "bad Gore". All his flaws were on display: his famous woodenness, his diffidence, his lack of a common touch. A group of Congressional Republicans, hoping to exploit those very weaknesses, has started regular public "readings" from Al Gore's books and speeches.

Their candidate's unimpressive showing in Texas was a particular disappointment to his supporters, as it followed what had been his finest hour for months. The previous week he had used his casting vote to pass new gun-control legislation through a deadlocked Senate, a move that showed him politically deft, principled, decisive, and above all, successful - qualities befitting a president-in-waiting.

And those qualities could yet prevail. Although the year 2000 election campaign has effectively begun, it is in its very earliest skirmishes. George W Bush, for all the confidence voiced by others in his prospects, has not yet tested his skills in the more hostile political reaches of the country, and could yet make gaffes that would exclude him from the running.

All vice-presidents suffer until they emerge from the president's shadow. Mr Gore could emerge one day, too. He is already trying out new themes, including more prominence for religion. When he forgets the brilliance of his boss, and when he gets mad enough, Al Gore can be an impressive performer: he trounced Ross Perot in a televised debate about the North American Free Trade Agreement, and he received plaudits recently for a speech he gave (without the President) in Iowa.

Yet these standard and cogent defences of Mr Gore attract a myriad ifs and buts. His reputation for integrity was tarnished by allegations that he broke the rules on fundraising. And the fact that China was implicated in the party funding row makes the current Chinese spy scandal - though totally unconnected - a potential danger to Mr Gore. By virtue of his position in the Administration, Mr Gore is also at risk from the war in Kosovo, if Mr Clinton cannot wrest at least the appearance of a Nato victory.

One day, Mr Gore may suddenly be freed of his inhibitions and become a natural and convincing performer, but then again, he may not. And although he has the party machine behind him and the declared support of party luminaries, he may yet have to fight for the Democratic nomination. Bill Bradley - former basketball star, Rhodes scholar, senator and polymath - is quietly sowing seeds of support across the country, with evident success. Mr Bradley is not God's gift to communication, either, but he commands respect, he is untainted by association with the Clinton presidency, and people are listening to him.

Were key Democrats to be convinced that he would make a stronger opponent against a strong Republican nominee, could party loyalty shift? What if Mr Bradley won the key primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire? In Washington and in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party, the consensus is still that such an upset is unlikely. To say that it is still early days, however, cuts both ways. It is too early to write Al Gore off, but it is also too early to endorse him.