The image problem that could finish Al Gore

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The Independent US

It is mid-day in front of the courthouse in Green Bay in the north of Wisconsin, and the Democratic candidate and his considerable entourage are on the makeshift stage. Al Gore has positioned himself as he always does when someone else is speaking: almost directly behind the speaker, so that you can hardly see him. Which is probably for the best, because he never knows quite how to behave.

It is mid-day in front of the courthouse in Green Bay in the north of Wisconsin, and the Democratic candidate and his considerable entourage are on the makeshift stage. Al Gore has positioned himself as he always does when someone else is speaking: almost directly behind the speaker, so that you can hardly see him. Which is probably for the best, because he never knows quite how to behave.

He knows the camera is on him (has it not been on him since his earliest childhood?); he knows he must pose. But he cannot decide whether to look aloof or engaged. So he just looks extraneous.

His once-supercharged running-mate, Joe Lieberman - clearly pounds lighter and running low on energy - presents "... the next President of the United States, AL GORE!" as he has done several times a day since his nomination three months ago. Mr Gore moves to the microphone and delivers the formal thanks and welcome. Then he does something peculiar. Although the temperature is not significantly above freezing, he starts to take off his jacket. "It's chilly," he says by way of an explanation, "but I'm HOT!" From the glances exchanged in this heartland crowd, the candidate (whose most publicised act this campaign was a rather graphic smooch with his wife) seems to realise that he may not have picked the most felicitous phrasing, and quickly adds: "This campaign is HOT!"

Still no rapture. No connection even when he invokes the local sports heroes, the Green Bay Packers. Now that his jacket is off, everyone else is in coats and anoraks, and he launches into a one-pitch ( forté) recital of his political programme. With Al Gore, as has been famously remarked, it is as though he lacks an internal thermostat; he cannot somehow regulate his demeanour according to his audience.

It is not just the legendary stiffness which makes him look, even now, like a robot that has been trained to act. It is a lack of spontaneity that makes every movement, every word look just a fraction delayed. A late-night television comedian quipped of this campaign that George Bush spoke as though English wasn't his first language; "Al Gore," he went on, "speaks as though it isn't ours."

None of this outer awkwardness will necessarily prevent Al Gore from becoming the 43rd president. Nor would it preclude his being at least a highly competent and diligent president, and at best a distinguished one. But in this age of television and populist politics, it is certainly a handicap. And none of the attempts to address the problem has solved it.

Whatever he has tried has only made matters worse, because it contradicted the message he so desperately wanted to send: that he was out of the shadow of Big Bad Bill Clinton, that "I am my own man". There was the strutting gait to give him the bearing of an "alpha male"; the "earth-tone" casuals to loosen him up and make him "a man of the people"; the company of his doting wife, Tipper; the fitness regime to make him lithe; the new hair-dos and high-buttoned suits to lend celebrity appeal.

But no one was fooled. Underneath, everyone could always detect the old Al Gore, the Gore who did not really know who he was, the beta-minus male, the over-trained son of respected Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, the kid who grew up in an apartment at the top of a Washington hotel but was dispatched to the family farm for the holidays for his grounding in "real life". So many were the guises he tried out - as George Bush was stumping the country in the same old suit and tie - that it was no wonder that credibility became his chief liability.

The only time a new image came close to convincing was that kiss, on the platform at the Democratic Party convention. For a moment it seemed that Al Gore might really be his own man. What message had he wanted to send, asked sceptical pundits. "I wanted to send a message to Tipper, that's clear," he would say disingenuously, almost marvelling at his boldness. And his poll ratings soared. Voters perked up to his policy message as well. He was able to speak about pensions, schools, wages and the iniquitous price of prescription medicine without the distractions of image.

It was the eve of the first televised debate and advice from Mr Gore's well-wishers was unanimous: you're good at debates, you know your stuff, just be civil, be nice, don't overdo it. If Mr Gore loses on Tuesday, he will have his manner at that debate to blame just as surely as the legacy of Bill Clinton's most grievous transgressions; probably more so. In the first five minutes he managed to be crass, rude and overbearing, and contemptuous of the rules that he himself had negotiated.

Among the more cruel recent taunts from his opponents was this, from Mr Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney. Mr Gore, he recalled, had said that in the first debate he had been "too hot" (that word again); in the second, "too cold"; and in the third, "ju-u-ust right". Mr Cheney pointed out that "Al Gore says he sees the campaign as an extended job interview, and he compares himself to Goldilocks. Would you, I ask you, give a job to someone who compares himself to Goldilocks?"

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