Gore ends up echoing Bush

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VICE-PRESIDENT Al Gore leapt out of the electoral starting gate last week, accomplishing a four-day, seven-state, nine-city dash across America that left the reporters who accompanied him fighting for breath, but the mainstream media and the voting public largely unmoved. It was a bravura performance - in geographical terms if no other - designed to shout out that he was running and, to borrow a phrase from his perceived rival-in-chief, George W Bush, "running hard".

Mr Gore's keenness, desperation almost, to make a race of it, was clear from the uncharacteristic, and somewhat forced, energy he displayed on Wednesday, when he declared from the steps of the Smith County courthouse on Main Street, Carthage, in his home state of Tennessee: "I announce that I am a candidate for President of the United States". It was clear from his unscheduled appearance on Wall Street a day later, from his gravitas as he swung through Silicon Valley the day after that, and from last night's graduation address in suburban Virginia.

Yet already Mr Gore has given ground to George Bush, in apparent recognition of the double-digit poll gap between them. In his declaration speech, which provided a template for his other addresses of the week, Mr Gore implicitly attacked Mr Bush's much-vaunted "compassionate conservatism", insisting that he would not leave people to "hope for crumbs of compassion". Washington's most seasoned political analysts professed amazement that the Vice-President had deigned to acknowledge his rival by sniping so soon at his themes.

More striking, though, than the differences were the similarities. Both are veering towards the centre ground. Mr Gore echoed Mr Bush's sentiment that "prosperity alone is simple materialism", saying: "the issue is not only our standard of living, but our standards in life". Like Mr Bush, he called for social inclusiveness, starting in schools; he stressed values and personal responsibility; he proposed a greater social role for religious organisations.

And if Mr Bush used to talk of values and responsibility to question the legacy of Bill Clinton, so too, in his own way, did Al Gore. In a series of media interviews - with reporters from Tennessee on Tuesday, with ABC television on Wednesday, and (accompanied by his wife, Tipper) with CNN's Larry King on Friday - Mr Gore set out to answer, and so neutralise, some of the more awkward questions that he will meet in the coming months. They were questions like these: why did he stick with Bill Clinton despite disapproving of his relationship with Monica Lewinksy? Answer: personal loyalty, his oath of office and the need for steadiness at the helm of the great ship of state. How can he possibly campaign on a platform of family values when he made only the most perfunctory public criticism of his boss? Answer: because he is not Bill Clinton; he is an exemplary husband and father. And what does he really think of Mr Clinton? "As a parent I felt [his conduct] was inexcusable" and "we lost time in the process". Just for good measure, friends put it about - strictly off the record - that his wife was "furious" with Bill Clinton and had not forgiven him.

Differentiating himself from Mr Clinton, whose political strengths and personal weaknesses have so marked their joint tenure, was a strategy that Washington pundits had long been advising. Mr Clinton, too, seemed to endorse it. As the White House immediately divulged, the President had called his deputy from his European tour to congratulate him on a "terrific" declaration speech, saying, perhaps too optimistically, that it presented "a clear choice for Americans".

Separating himself from Mr Clinton, though, could be just as risky as standing too close. Americans may disapprove of Mr Clinton, but they also indulge him, and they credit him for a good part of America's current prosperity. So it was notable this week that Mr Gore has backed off from his tendency to write Mr Clinton out of his script and tried instead to distinguish the good from the bad, associating himself with the President on the economy and his "stand for freedom" in Kosovo.

But this more nuanced approach is not foolproof. What if the economic boom fades; what if Americans are killed in Kosovo? Mr Gore is not a lucky politician. No sooner had the White House highlighted his special relationship with the Russian mediator, Viktor Chernomyrdin, over Kosovo than Russian troops moved unilaterally into Pristina. One of his key selling points - his deciding vote in the Senate for new gun controls after the Colorado school shootings - was effectively undone on Friday when the House voted the same controls down by a massive majority.

In all, Mr Gore might be better advised to concentrate on differentiating himself from Mr Bush and leave the voters to judge his relationship with Mr Clinton: in much, it mirrors theirs. If he makes the contest one of character rather than policies, his biggest advantages - the policy successes of the past six years - are lost.



GORE (left): Important as prosperity is, there is more ... There is a hunger and thirst for goodness among us ... for the issue is not only our standard of living, but our standards in life.

BUSH: America will be prosperous and strong if we do the right things. But prosperity alone is simple materialism. Prosperity must have a greater purpose. The purpose of prosperity is to leave no one out.


GORE: It is our lives we must master if we are to have the moral authority to guide our children ... All people taking responsibility for themselves and for each other.

BUSH (right): My first goal is to usher in the responsibility era ... Each of us must understand we are responsible for the choices we make.


GORE: We can create a true politics of community by working more closely with faith-based organisations to heal the afflicted, feed the hungry and house the homeless.

BUSH: Government can spend money, but it can't put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. This is done by churches and synagogues and mosques and charities that warm the cold of life.