Gore presents Americans with 'the big choice'

Candidates' race for the White House is rattled by Wall Street volatility and the Vice-President's aggressive debate performance
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Vice-President Al Gore launched the final push of his White House campaign yesterday, presenting himself as the one responsible steward of the nation's economy and warning "prosperity itself" was at stake in this year's election.

Vice-President Al Gore launched the final push of his White House campaign yesterday, presenting himself as the one responsible steward of the nation's economy and warning "prosperity itself" was at stake in this year's election.

Yet even as he played the economic card, the first post-debate opinion polls and a new volatility on Wall Street injected fresh uncertainty into this year's epic contest for the presidency.

Speaking at Columbia University in New York, Mr Gore warned against taking for granted the record-breaking economic boom of the past seven years and tried to reclaim some of the populist themes that turned the electoral tide in his favour after the Democratic Party's convention in August.

Mr Gore said: "On November 7 we face one of the biggest choices America has faced in a generation ... Will we seize this moment to extend prosperity and share it widely, or will we just lavish more on those who need it least, and hope the benefits trickle down to everybody else?"

It was a key passage in his speech, in which every word - 'choice', 'prosperity', 'share', 'lavish', 'trickle down' - appeared to have been focus-tested for efficacy in these last crucial weeks of the campaign.

Introducing a new slogan, "The big choice", Mr Gore set out to distinguish himself from his opponent, George W Bush, at every turn. He promised to build continued economic prosperity on a balanced budget, to aim tax cuts at those less well-off, and to use "this unprecedented economic opportunity" to improve health care and schools and clean up the environment.

In singling out the economy for the climax of his campaign, Mr Gore is taking a leaf from the campaign of Bill Clinton whose mantra, "It's the economy, stupid!" was plastered on the walls of his campaign offices and who promised to focus "like a laser beam" on the economy. Mr Gore, however, was careful to borrow without attributing the subsequent success to Mr Clinton by name, stressing the future not the past.

Yet whether the economic argument will clinch the election for Mr Gore is unclear, however much he wants it to shape the final two weeks of the campaign. The prevailing affluence has so far made the economy less of an issue this year than it was eight years ago, while the recent decline in the stock markets, including Wednesday's precipitate drop, could yet raise questions about how much longer the boom will last.

Mr Gore alluded briefly to such worries, only to dismiss them because, in his view, the basics were sound. He said: "If we balance the budget and pay down the debt and invest in priorities like education then, the fundamentals being good, the rest of the economy will pretty much fall in place."

A greater source of concern for Mr Gore may be the first polling figures to be released since Tuesday night's third and last presidential debate. While Mr Gore was hailed as the victor by large majorities in the immediate post-debate assessments, Mr Bush emerged slightly ahead again yesterday in the polls, recovering the ground he lost to Mr Gore.

The message of the polls is that winning a television debate, however convincingly, is not sufficient to persuade wavering voters to plump for Mr Gore. His aggressive manner and cock-sure delivery, as well as his willingness to bend the rules, left even some supporters unhappy.

The veteran commentator William Safire, who is certainly no friend of Mr Gore, may have been too quick to write off the Vice-President when he wrote yesterday: "Like the sadly victorious King Pyrrhus, Gore won the third debate in a way that may cost him the election." But his performance did not win him the election either.

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