Ballot Box


Chicago–There’s no smell of death in the Gore campaign, but there is a slight whiff of desperation. If the candidate weren’t panicked, I don’t think he would be overdoing the last lap thing quite so theatrically. To close, Gore is ricocheting from coast to coast on murderous 19-hour days that take advantage of the time difference to allow him to hold late-night rallies in two places on the same day. Today’s schedule began in the early morning in Scranton, Pa., with stops in Chicago; El Paso, Texas; and Las Cruces, N.M., before winding up in Kansas City early tomorrow morning. At rallies, Gore shouts himself hoarse and pleads with his supporters to do more to help him.

I caught up with Gore late last night in Scranton under the stone arches of the Historic Iron Furnaces. It was an imperial scene, with Gore speaking down to a huge audience in the floodlit pit of what looked like a Roman ruin. The temperature was 46 degrees, but Gore began by removing his suit jacket. “It may be cold outside, but I feel hot!” he exclaimed. A few minutes later, in another unconvincing hardest-working-man-in-politics move, he rolled up his shirt sleeves. This just looked weird on a stage full of people in parkas and overcoats. Happily, the vice president stopped a few buttons short of a Full Monty.

At an earlier stage of the campaign, people who saw Gore speak would often remark not so much on his awfulness as a public performer but on his unevenness. He would be energetic at one stop, excruciating at the next. That’s because the Gore dial has two settings–1 and 10. If you’ve got to choose, yelling–his approach lately–is preferable to droning. But the spittle-flecking mode leads to problems of its own because it’s not suitable for much of what Gore has to say. He’ll pause in midscreech to recycle the line from his convention speech, “I may not be the most exciting politician in the world.” This acknowledgement rings insincere in the mouth of a candidate who a moment before sounded like Bugs Bunny on steroids.

Gore isn’t an unexciting politician. He’s a politician with a tin ear. Last night, after getting the Scranton crowd all riled up, he decided it was a good time to go into detail about how his Medicare prescription drug plan would work. “Right now, if you’re in a group health plan, they go to the big drug companies and bargain on your behalf,” he explained. “The big drug companies know that if Medicare gets involved, they’re going to start bringing the price down.” True perhaps, but just way too complicated for the setting and the hour. At a floodlit late-night rally, the only thing a candidate should say about policy is that he has one that will work, and the other guy doesn’t.

We’re probably past the point in the campaign, though, where such niceties matter much. The value of the candidates’ frenetic public performances in the final days before the election doesn’t depend on how well they tickle crowds composed of people who already support them or which portions of their stump speeches they recycle. These final appearances are basically exercises in gesture. And here they are quite different.

Bush’s posture is that of the guy who’s ahead in the national polls. He’s relaxed, confident, even-keeled. Given how close the race really is, with Gore slightly ahead in more of the polls in more of the key battleground states, this confident attitude is probably more tactical then real. What the Bush campaign knows is that having people think you’re a winner can work like peer pressure; it encourages fence-sitters to fall on your side. I also think “Kausfiles” is on to something about Bush and the Nader voters. If he can convince them he’s going to win, they can go Green with impunity. The risk here is Bush accidentally persuading his own base not to worry.

Gore’s stance, on the other hand, is that of the underdog barking furiously and nipping at the ankles of the front-runner. Given the polls, he’s not confident of victory and can’t pretend that he is. But Gore needs to show his supporters that he thinks he can win, and that, in fact, he’s just on the verge of pulling ahead in the race. Being slightly behind can be an advantage in mobilizing your base. As Gore notes at almost every stop, the race could be decided by the equivalent of one vote in every precinct. If that doesn’t get the faithful to church, nothing will. Gore’s midnight marathon also reminds voters that he is someone who likes to work incredibly hard–and that the other guy doesn’t.

In addition to working harder, the underdog needs to bite. Yesterday and today, Gore went after Bush much more sharply than he has previously, both in a series of TV ads and in his public appearances. The Gore campaign’s new argument is that Bush is unprepared to be president. “Not ready” is the Gore euphemism for “moron” the way “credibility” is the Bush euphemism for “liar, liar, pants on fire.” The Gore team wants to use the “readiness” issue against Bush the way Bush has used the “trust” issue against Gore.

They should have started in on this line of attack sooner. The problem is that Gore has repeatedly promised to refrain from “negative personal attacks.” In the first debate, he got even more specific, saying not quite truthfully that he had never questioned Bush’s experience. But this meant that Gore couldn’t turn around and immediately start questioning it. He never even left a loophole for self-defense.

As a result, Gore is now walking a tightrope of his own devising. He’s trying to call Bush a twit without really calling him one. The way he does this is by making a lot of allegations that aren’t really supportive of the charge, such as Bush spending $1 trillion of the Social Security surplus twice and letting polluters run amok in Texas. These are policy issues, and good ones, but not questions about Bush’s fitness for the presidency.

So Gore is a bit stuck. He’s a victim if he doesn’t attack Bush and a hypocrite if he does. He should have known how to avoid this trap. After all, it’s the same one he sprang on Bill Bradley in the primaries.