G-Day: Gore is The Candidate at last. But will he be a contender?

The Vice-President formally accepts the Democratic nomination and attempts to emerge from Clinton's long shadow
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The Independent US

With Democrats looking for nothing less than an epiphany to breathe new life into their struggling campaign for the White House, all eyes turned last night to the man who embodies many of the party's misgivings but is the only one who can truly rekindle its hopes - its candidate, for better or worse, Al Gore.

With Democrats looking for nothing less than an epiphany to breathe new life into their struggling campaign for the White House, all eyes turned last night to the man who embodies many of the party's misgivings but is the only one who can truly rekindle its hopes - its candidate, for better or worse, Al Gore.

As he prepared to formally accept the party's nomination at the closing night of the convention, the Vice-President knew that he had to give the speech of his life. In one swoop, he had to allay fears that he is too distant and aloof, set out a compelling policy program without appearing to fudge on the key issues, win the confidence of the Democratic Party's liberal grass roots while at the same time reaching out to centrist swing voters and, above all, bridge the charisma gap that has left him deep in Bill Clinton's shadow for the past eight years and stir his audience to true enthusiasm.

It was, to say the very least, a tall order. Although Mr Gore would seem to have every advantage - experience, brains, and the benefit of the longestboom in post-war US history - this week's Democratic Convention has revealed a party fraught with doubt about his suitability for the top job.

The Republican nominee, George W Bush, has been ahead in opinion polls for months and appears to enjoy a more favourable public perception even on issues where Mr Gore should in theory excel, such as foreign and defence policy. Since no Democrat seriously believes Mr Bush, with his limited experience of public office, can hold a candle to Mr Gore's grasp of the issues, they suspect the real deficiency is one of character. One poll this week showed that 47 per cent of voters had decided that whoever they picked for president it would not be Mr Gore.

On top of that, there are fears that Mr Gore is taking the Democrats so far to the right - by choosing the conservative Connecticut senator, Joseph Lieberman, as his running mate, for example - that he is alienating the very people he needs to emphasise what should be clearly demonstrable differences between his positions and Mr Bush's.

Confidence in the Democratic Party has been so shaky that even this week's high points - Mr Clinton's bravura speech on Monday night and an similarly compelling oration by Mr Lieberman on Wednesday - have been tempered by the same haunting questions: Will this be enough? Will Mr Gore be able to top these fine performances, or will he fall short?

The strategy that has emerged is to go populist, to show Mr Gore as being far more in touch with the concerns of ordinary people than the ordinary people might suspect. To bring the Vice-President down off his intellectual perch, much of the focus has been on his "human journey" - presenting his career in dramatic, personal terms, and emphasising his other side as a family man with down-to-earth feelings and tastes like any other American.

As she presented his nomination to the floor, Mr Gore's daughter Karenna Gore Schiff reminisced about him making breakfast for the family - even if it was just toast and butter. Mr Gore's room-mate from his Harvard days, the actor Tommy Lee Jones, recalled them shooting pool and "catching the odd cow" together.

There has also been an effort to convert Mr Gore's awkwardness into strengths by making it the butt of self-deprecating jokes. When looking for a director to shoot a video of the Gore family holiday in North Carolina earlier this month, Mr Gore made the inspired choice of Spike Jonze, the man who made the wacky comedy Being John Malkovich. Just as the characters in that film find a portal leading into the brain of the eponymous actor, so Mr Jonze was asked to find a portal into the enigmatic, elusive head of the Vice-President.

In the video, shown at the convention last night, Mr Gore appears relaxed and understanding of the misgivings about him. "The guy standing motionless on stage behind the president - what the hell makes him think he can be president?" Mr Gore laughs. He also admits his discomfort at the glad-handing side of politics. "I'm a lot more comfortable with the idea of rolling up my sleeves and making the system work than I am with the campaigning," he says.

This theme, and the contrast it establishes with the easy-going, good ol' boyish Mr Bush, is clearly one that will continue. It was echoed on Wednesday by the governor of California, Gray Davis (no king of charisma himself), who told delegates: "The American people are not looking for a rock star to be president," he argued, "they want a serious man of substance."

If the substance is there, however, a lot of Democrats are anxious to know exactly what it consists of. Away from the convention floor, this week has seen the biggest orgy of corporate-sponsored fund-raising parties in Democratic Party history, leading many delegates to wonder whether they aren't straying too far from the party's roots and whether Mr Gore wouldn't be beholden to the special interests offering to bankroll his campaign.

There are policy concerns on everything from education and social security to affirmative action and defence. African Americans, for example, need to be convinced the ticket represents their interests, or else the support they consistently gave to Mr Clinton might simply melt away. Other liberals, meanwhile, are being wooed by the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who is running on the Green Party ticket and enjoying around 8 per cent support.

Mr Lieberman went some way to address these issues in his speech, itself a model of easy-going populism. But it is Mr Gore's name that appears at the top of the ticket, and Mr Gore alone who can overcome the misgivings of party and country. For all his policy wonkishness and experience of focus groups and committee work, he is essentially a man who makes decisions alone. He gave perhaps the truest indication of his character by withdrawing from view earlier this month and writing his speech by himself, with little input from even his closest colleagues.

His appearances across Middle America earlier this week, and again briefly on the convention floor on Wednesday, suggest he is energised and ready to meet the challenge. Whether he succeeds or fails, he knows it is all down to him.