Time for Gore to stretch his wings

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The Independent Online

So after all these years, we now know the identity of the "headless man" in the Duchess of Argyll sex scandal. It was Douglas Fairbanks Junior. Next week we may perhaps learn the true identity of the "headless chicken" in the Lewinsky scandal - Albert Gore Junior.

So after all these years, we now know the identity of the "headless man" in the Duchess of Argyll sex scandal. It was Douglas Fairbanks Junior. Next week we may perhaps learn the true identity of the "headless chicken" in the Lewinsky scandal - Albert Gore Junior.

Democratic delegates gathering in Los Angeles for their convention must be asking themselves why they have bothered. The usual function of a convention is to choose a candidate. Already done. Shorn of that task, delegates can normally speculate about the running-mate and lobby for their choice. Again, done. Gore's choice last week of Senator Joseph Lieberman - designed to spoil George Bush's party - has taken any excitement out of Al's own gig.

Ever since it became obvious that Gore would win his party's nomination, well-wishers have urged the Vice-President to emerge from Clinton's shadow and prove that he has his a mind of his own. It was his supposed independence of thought that made him an attractive running-mate for Clinton in the first place. But eight years of loyally biting his tongue in the face of Clinton's antics seem to have taken their toll on Gore. Now he seems loath to open his mouth about anything very much - and even when he does, as when he supported the Miami relatives of the Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez, he puts a foot in it.

George Bush, with his vague but alluring message of "compassionate conservatism", seems to be cruising towards November. Exactly as planned, the Republican convention was a smooth and well-coordinated coronation - an argument-free zone. The safe choice of Dick Cheney for running mate only served to emphasise that for Bush the presidency is there for the taking - so long as he avoids mistakes.

It seems surprising that, with a booming economy and world dominance, Americans are turning to the son of the man who was the USA's very own John Major - George Bush senior. But Gore has only himself to blame for his failure to engage with voters. He has had ample opportunity in the past few months to recapture the crusading zeal he used to display. He has failed to do so. Part of the blame for Gore's relative fuzziness can be ascribed to Clinton. Bill just can't help grabbing the headlines, and he makes Gore pale by comparison. Even Clinton's televised mea culpa last week, designed to let Gore off the Lewinsky hook, ensured that it was the Prez, not his pal Al, that dominated the news.

With their man trailing in the polls, Democrats must use this week to force Gore to come into a sharper focus. What does he really think of Clinton? Of Elian Gonzalez? Of gun control? More importantly, Gore must show that he is prepared to think hard about the issues which will confront the US and the world in the post-Clinton years: privacy in the internet age, cloning and genetic patenting, globalisation and environmentalism. These used to be Al's happy hunting ground, in his policy-wonk days. He must return to them. Above all, he needs to prove that he has an idea of how the US will use its influence on the world stage to promote good governance worldwide - without the bully-boy tactics of the proposed missile defence system. It's not too late: the election is still open. But if Al is to be remembered as anything more than Bill's headless chicken, he must sharpen up his act this week.

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