Mr Gore needs more than a good running mate to win the White House

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The Independent Online

Back in 1992, Bill Clinton's choice of Al Gore as his running mate was a galvanising moment of a memorable Democratic campaign. The "Double Bubba" ticket of two youthful, moderate Southerners caught America's imagination. Gore's knowledge of foreign and security affairs, his expertise on the environment, and his general air of probity made him a perfect partner for the charismatic, fluent but less than trustworthy future President.

Back in 1992, Bill Clinton's choice of Al Gore as his running mate was a galvanising moment of a memorable Democratic campaign. The "Double Bubba" ticket of two youthful, moderate Southerners caught America's imagination. Gore's knowledge of foreign and security affairs, his expertise on the environment, and his general air of probity made him a perfect partner for the charismatic, fluent but less than trustworthy future President.

Eight years on, as he ponders his own choice of vice-presidential nominee, Al Gore desperately needs an infusion of similar magic. A week before Democrats gather in Los Angeles to crown him as their candidate, he trails his Republican opponent George W Bush by 10 to 15 points in the polls - not an insuperable deficit, but one which will require a better-than-average post-convention "bounce" to redress. And the recent rule of American politics is that the candidate who comes out of the August convention season ahead usually goes on to win in November.

This time, however, the choice of vice-President is unlikely to make that much of a difference. Three candidates, sitting Democratic Senators all, are said to be in the frame - John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina - although Mr Gore, desperate to stir interest, still talks tantalisingly of a "wild card". These are three fine men, who meet the bottom-line requirement that if something were to happen to the boss, they would be fit to take over the Presidency. Beyond that, however, similarities with 1992 are few.

Then, Bill Clinton was a novelty, as well as being the US's most dazzling campaigner in half a century. After two terms as an unusually high-profile vice-President, Al Gore is anything but a novelty, and not in Mr Clinton's league on the stump.

Famously, sitting vice-Presidents have a job getting their own campaign going (look no further than George Bush senior who in 1988 at one point was running as far behind Michael Dukakis, the man he would later trounce, as Mr Gore lags behind Bush junior today). Even so, it remains a mystery why Mr Gore's performance has thus far been so feeble. He is supremely well qualified. He has brains to spare, able advisers, and a picture-postcard family, not to mention the feel-good factor created by a surging economy. But it has been the supposedly lightweight Mr Bush who has made the running on the issues, while Al Gore has failed to get his message across. Today he is unequivocally the underdog, as he embarks on the three months that will make or break the ambition of a lifetime.

In fact, however, huge openings beckon. The Republican convention may have been a stylistic masterpiece, but it offered nothing of substance. If ever there were a time for imaginative proposals, it is now. Mr Bush is trying to pull the old Clinton trick, of stealing your opponent's policies and dressing them in your own cloth. Next week Mr Gore must seize the showcase of his convention to remind his countrymen whose administration it was that carried out the policies which have helped bring prosperity unparalleled in US history.

Finally, he is a skilful, brutal debater who should have the edge in the televised presidential debates this autumn, likely to be among the most important of their kind yet. But the next fortnight will be the crucial launchpad. For Al Gore, the last ascent to the White House starts in Los Angeles.

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