Gore shifts to left as Clinton written out of the script

In his showpiece speech Vice President pokes fun at himself and pledges 'better, fairer, more prosperous America'
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The Independent US

It was off to the state of Wisconsin and a Mississippi riverboat for Vice-President Al Gore yesterday, as he and his running mate, Joseph Lieberman, sought to capitalise on the momentum from the Democrats' national convention and take their electoral message to the Mid-Western battleground states. Several days will elapse before polls show whether the Los Angeles convention helped Mr Gore, and if so, how much. But on one point there was early agreement.

It was off to the state of Wisconsin and a Mississippi riverboat for Vice-President Al Gore yesterday, as he and his running mate, Joseph Lieberman, sought to capitalise on the momentum from the Democrats' national convention and take their electoral message to the Mid-Western battleground states. Several days will elapse before polls show whether the Los Angeles convention helped Mr Gore, and if so, how much. But on one point there was early agreement.

In the speech that had the capacity to make or break his career, Mr Gore cleared the bar. He rose to the occasion and gave the speech of his life: a state of the Union-style address packed with policies that would dictate the state of the Union to come. It was not without flaws and wanted for poetry, but it was enough to keep him in contention as the race for the White House goes into the home straight.

It also shifted the Democratic Party decisively, and surprisingly, to the left. He promised a "better, fairer, more prosperous America" in which he would "fight" for the interests of working families. He pledged a "step by step" move to health care for all, stricter environmental regulation, subsidies for prescription drugs for the elderly, and the radical reform of the political funding system that Congress has so far resisted.

He championed the sort of "big government" that the so-called New Democrats had sought to roll back, and emphasised a rich-poor divide that the political centrists, led by Bill Clinton, had sought for eight years to play down. "They're for the powerful," he said of the Republicans. "We're for the people. Big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies... Sometimes you have to be willing to stand up and say 'No', so families can have a better life."

Mr Gore had gone into his party's convention with the task of demonstrating that he was presidential material. He trailed Mr Bush by more than 10 points in most polls and had run a halting and lacklustre campaign. When he took the floor on Thursday night - in an arena desperate to believe, but still wracked with doubt - you could see him visibly steeling himself for his ordeal.

As well as defining himself against his Republican opponent Mr Gore had also to define himself against Mr Clinton, the President whose valedictory tour de force had taken the convention by storm three days before. "I stand here tonight as my own man," Mr Gore said to cheers.

In a masterstroke that could yet win him the election, and even the affection of America, he turned his lack of personal charisma to his advantage. "I know my own imperfections," he said. "I know that sometimes people say I'm too serious, that I talk too much substance and policy. Maybe I've done that tonight." ("No, no," they yelled from the floor.) "But the presidency is more than a popularity contest," he said. "It's a day by day fight for people."

There was a glimpse of how Mr Gore could demolish the personal and presentational advantages of Mr Bush and emerge the victor in November. But it would be at the cost not just of downplaying but of forswearing the Clinton legacy. And there were times when it appeared that was exactly what he was preparing to do. "This election is not an award for past performance," he said.

The judgement that Mr Gore is better off without Mr Clinton appeared vindicated earlier in the day when word came from Washington of yet another judicial investigation into the President's conduct. This time, it was the formation of a grand jury to consider whether there was evidence sufficient to charge him with perjury and obstruction of justice once he leaves office.

In an immediate response to Mr Gore's speech, Mr Bush's spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, highlighted the Vice-President's shift to the left and conjured up a vision of "class warfare, partisanship and division". In identifying all the tasks still to be accomplished, she said, Mr Gore had unwittingly conceded how far the current administration had failed.

Mr Gore may now have graduated from Vice-President into candidate, but the Clinton legacy will hang over this election, for better or worse, and over the next presidency as well - whoever wins.

* In some editions of yesterday's Independent, some quotes that accompanied a report on the Democratic Convention were attributed to Al Gore. They were later discovered to have been published on the Internet by an anti-Gore organisation.

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