Desperate Veep seeks a big idea

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HIS advisers' lips are sealed, but no one with even a modicum of political nous needs much imagination to conjure up the tenor of discussions in the camp of Vice-President - and aspiring President - Al Gore.

With 18 months until election day, they are casting round almost desperately for a formula that will help him to "connect" with the voters. Bill Clinton's gift is Al Gore's shortcoming, and it is fast losing him the top job.

The past week typified the Herculean efforts being made to find his forte. And, as he lags 16 points behind the early Republican favourite, George Bush Jr, for the third month in a row, how he has wasted them.

On Sunday he represented the administration at the memorial service for the victims of the Colorado school shooting, but his speech was a meandering fiasco. It did not even warrant a soundbite on the evening news and was unflatteringly compared with President Clinton's utterances on such occasions.

On Monday he went to a conference in Detroit to proclaim the "quality of life" agenda that he is trying to make the hallmark of his campaign - but the organisers chided him for exploiting a non-party occasion. On Wednesday he was at the White House praising the computer industry for enabling parents to limit their offspring's access to dubious - especially violent - material on the internet. A sure-fire winner in the wake of the Colorado shootings, except that any Gore appearance with a computer recalls his much-ridiculed claim to have invented the internet.

On Thursday, after a swing around the tornado damage in the mid-Western plains (still no soundbite), disaster struck again. He was to have sat in for CNN interviewer Larry King: a chance to capitalise on the skills which floored independent candidate Ross Perot in their 1993 debate on free trade. But Republican leaders accused CNN (dubbed the "Clinton News Network" by the President's foes) of giving the Vice-President a poll boost, and Mr Gore slunk back to the guest's side of the microphone.

While waiting for his communications breakthrough - that the Veep may one day sparkle before the cameras cannot be ruled out - Mr Gore is compensating by identifying sooner than his rivals the likely "hot- button" issues in next year's election. These are the concerns that any candidate must address to the voters' satisfaction if he (or she) is to succeed.

To that end, the "Green" Gore of eight years ago, the eco-warrior who brought global environmentalism to Bill Clinton's first-term agenda, has been matching his greenness more closely to the hue favoured by Americans. Where once he lectured them about the dangers of global warming, his maps and charts are now local, and depict development on the fringes of America's big cities - in a word, "sprawl".

When Mr Clinton chose Al Gore as his running mate, his global greenness was seen as a political asset. Mr Gore's book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, preached careful custodianship and the responsibility of rich countries towards poorer ones, the whole shot through with more than a hint of "New Age" values.

That was before the 1997 Kyoto conference on climate change, however, which unleashed a fierce political argument and generated popular hostility, much of it rooted in fears that the price of fuels would rise to European levels. All this so that the Chinese and Latin Americans could modernise their industries and price American goods out of the market.

Mr Gore went to Kyoto, helped broker a compromise treaty that has never been ratified by - nor even submitted to - the US Congress and gradually replaced his global environmentalism with a local version that Americans like better. Even some of his opponents concede that he has chosen well. From California to Connecticut, sprawl - for which someone else is always to blame - is a consuming concern of suburban voters (now a full 60 per cent of the total), who have traditionally leant to the right.

As each new wave of suburbanites tries to prevent another wave encroaching on their space, farmers retire and sell their holdings to developers for exponential sums, and local authorities are petitioned to build new roads and keep green space green.

The sprawl issue plays simultaneously to egoism and altruism. Egoism because it is partly about house values and exclusivity and keeping the green space around your house - the "Not in My Back Yard" syndrome. Altruism, because it is also about conserving the joys of nature and clean air for everyone. Because "liveability", as Al Gore frames it, also entails combating overcrowding in schools and congestion on the roads, it is a potential draw for women voters, a constituency hitherto cool to Al Gore.

"Many Americans today," Mr Gore told his audience in Detroit last week, "are reaching for a new prosperity defined not just by the quantity of their bank accounts but also by the quality of their lives. They want 'smart' growth that produces prosperity while protecting a high quality of life."

"Smart" growth, pioneered in Maryland, combines tougher planning rules with intensive development of existing urban sites, and subsidies geared to preserving the countryside rather than developing private housing.

A cautious man, Mr Gore is none the less taking a risk and no other candidate has followed him. In the view of Christine Whitman, Republican Governor of New Jersey, too tough a line comes close to dictating where Americans may live. Little would repel voters more. Americans' ambivalence about sprawl - they reject and embrace it at once - means it must be handled with care.

Given that Al Gore's political antennae are not the most acute and his luck often fickle, his anti-sprawl campaign may yet go the way of his pitches on global warming and the internet. He spotted both issues early, but they both came back to bite him.