Mr Gore's dilemma: how to defeat Mr Nice Guy without looking like a bully

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By every conventional yardstick of modern politics, the forthcoming US presidential election should have been tailor-made for Al Gore. He is the candidate of the incumbent party, the anointed heir of a popular president, but widely respected in his own right for his competence and mastery of the issues. His country is at peace and enjoying unprecedented prosperity and global power. His opponent, Governor George W Bush of Texas, is a likeable enough fellow, but perhaps the least qualified contender for the White House in recent memory.

By every conventional yardstick of modern politics, the forthcoming US presidential election should have been tailor-made for Al Gore. He is the candidate of the incumbent party, the anointed heir of a popular president, but widely respected in his own right for his competence and mastery of the issues. His country is at peace and enjoying unprecedented prosperity and global power. His opponent, Governor George W Bush of Texas, is a likeable enough fellow, but perhaps the least qualified contender for the White House in recent memory.

Yet two weeks from election day, Mr Gore is clearly, albeit narrowly, behind. There is a real possibility that an election that ought to have been his for the taking - and indeed just six weeks ago seemed to be precisely that - will end in defeat.

To be fair, Mr Gore's problems are not entirely of his own making. He faces a tricky challenge from his left by the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who threatens to siphon off enough votes to hand several traditionally solid Democratic states in the Pacific North-west and the upper Mid-west to Mr Bush.

A curious dynamic is also abroad in this autumn of contentment in the United States. In terms of substance, Mr Gore is generally considered to have won the three debates this month; but "victory" seems to have reduced, rather than enhanced, his popularity. With few issues of vital immediate importance to trouble them, American voters appear to be judging the candidates in terms of personality. And whatever his shortcomings, Mr Bush is deemed the nicer guy.

That said, Mr Gore has so far fought a poor campaign. His manner, especially in the debates, has seemed arrogant and condescending. He has allowed himself to be depicted, quite misleadingly, as the candidate of overweening government. "I am my own man," Mr Gore understandably insists. But his decision to keep his distance from Bill Clinton, the most dazzling political campaigner in modern American history, is mistaken and counter-productive.

In this last crucial fortnight, the Vice-President faces a double dilemma. One part is the Nader problem: how does he win back votes on the left without losing the moderates and independents essential for overall victory? The other is one of presentation. Somehow Mr Gore must highlight Mr Bush's deficiencies on the issues, without coming across as a bully and alienating voters, as he did in the debates.

But there is still all to play for in this closest American election in four decades. Voters plainly have doubts about both candidates, and are not satisfied with the choice on offer, as someone put it, "between the insufficient and the insupportable". For the moment, the advantage lies with Mr Bush. Having met the low expectations of him in the debates, his main task now is to avoid mistakes.

Mr Gore, on the other hand, has history against him. Several times since the war, the candidate trailing in the closing stages of a presidential campaign has put in a last-minute surge - but never quite enough to turn the tables.

His best hope may lie in a paradox. The assumption with which we began was that good times favour the incumbent. Right now, however, perhaps nothing would help Mr Gore more than a genuine crisis, which might force the electorate to concentrate on his strengths and not his weaknesses.

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