KEENE, N.H. — After nearly a quarter century in elected office, Vice President Al Gore can sound oddly unconvincing when talking about his ability to lead. Stepping off a New Hampshire stage recently surrounded by some 200 sign-waving supporters, the Democratic presidential candidate laughs awkwardly when asked how he would overcome the perception of many Americans in polls that he is a weak leader.
Looking down and shaking his head, Gore says nothing to refute the idea. Instead, he explains his campaign is only in "Chapter 1." Then he lapses into phrases he uses over and over, pledging to go on "fighting for the people of this country, for working families...."
The flaccid response is curious given Mr. Gore's political pedigree. After all, he is perhaps the most experienced candidate for president, a veteran of 16 years in Congress, and seven in the White House as arguably the most influential vice president ever. Known as thoughtful and farsighted, Gore has a detailed mastery of national policy. A devoted father and husband, he also has a reputation for personal loyalty.
Yet for all he's accomplished, the reserved, slow-spoken Tennessean is failing to convey the forcefulness, easy confidence, and plain old charismatic "zing" that many look for in a president. And he knows it. "I certainly don't want this campaign to be about who has the most charisma," Gore allowed in a gymnasium full of undecided voters in Keene, N.H., earlier this month.
Why is it so hard for Gore, with his many obvious talents, to convey that he has the "right stuff" to lead the United States?
Historically, Gore is not alone. Most men who have attempted the leap from veep to president have failed, at least partly because the often-ceremonial No. 2 job "has a way of diminishing the occupant, so you have only a bare shadow at the end," says Paul Light, a Brookings Institution fellow who studies the vice presidency.
Gore's campaign staff puts it more bluntly, talking about the "mask" and "shackles of being VP." And Gore himself admits the transition isn't easy. "For seven years I have accepted an obligation to be a team player, and to respond to every question and challenge by thinking, at least for a split second: 'How can I help the president on this?' " he says. That role, he admits, "can be inconsistent with establishing a clear and direct line of communication with the American people when you're running for president."
Gore is further hampered by "Clinton fatigue," or widespread voter ennui with scandals associated with the Clinton administration. That has left Gore reluctant to emphasize that he has been, in fact, an unusually strong vice president, with broad responsibilities ranging from the environment and technology to foreign affairs.
Finally, Gore's centrist Democrat ideology does not lend itself to the high ideals and bold, passionate appeals that the electorate often wants from a president, some analysts say. Instead, it favors safer, more pragmatic compromises. Indeed, Gore's campaign platforms on health care, Social Security, education, and the economy hew closer to the status quo than do the riskier proposals of his Democratic and GOP rivals.
"If you are a spokesman for tapioca pudding, how forceful can you be?" says Georgia Sorenson, co-author of "Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation."
Persona as a team player
But Gore's struggle to emerge as leader-like stems from more than institutions and ideology: It's deeply rooted in his personality and staid upbringing as a senator's son, according to old friends, staff members, and biographical accounts. They suggest that Gore's political style - studious and hard-working, loyal and deferential - is in essence that of a team player, not a commanding chief executive.
"He's not a white-hot, hell-bent-for-leather, win-at-all-costs politician," observes Roy Neel, Gore's former chief of staff in the Senate and White House.
After a lifetime of being groomed for the presidency, Gore is naturally cautious, and painfully aware of the seriousness of any missteps. Yet he also faces tremendous pressure to succeed. That pressure, say some who know Gore, is now fueling insecurities.
"It's very possible he's a classic No. 2 guy who gets frozen when he tries to move into the No. 1 position," says Dick Morris, a former Clinton adviser. Mr. Morris expresses surprise that Gore, a forceful advocate within the administration, now as a candidate "looks a lot more like the guy who ran and lost in 1988."
Privilege and pig manure
High expectations surrounded Gore from the beginning. Born in 1948, he spent his youth in the 1950s and '60s largely amid the privileged, self-conscious social circles of Washington, where he lived in the Fairfax Hotel, mingled with his father's Senate colleagues, and once sat on Vice President Nixon's lap in the Senate chamber. During trips to the family farm in Tennessee, his father gave him a taste of his rural roots, having him plow hillsides and shovel pig manure.
By the time Gore was an upperclassman at the prestigious St. Albans School in Washington in the early 1960s, he was almost disconcertingly well-behaved and at the same time intensely competitive, former friends and teachers recall.
In his first bid for office, he won the post of prefect at St. Albans, and later freshman council representative at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "He bowed, stuck out his hand, and said, 'I want your vote,'" recalls John Tyson, who would later share a room with Gore. "My roommate at the time was also running. He came back and said, 'I can't win. This guy [Gore] is a professional!' "
Sophomore year at Harvard, Gore instigated what Mr. Tyson calls "the chicken revolt," standing on a chair among classmates at Dunster House to decry the monotonous nightly servings of poultry. Gore wanted to win at everything, from Ping-Pong to black jack to beer-guzzling, Tyson says.
But Gore's inbred caution was also clearly evident at Harvard, especially during the antiwar protests of the late 1960s, which Gore avoided, and in his anguished decision to serve in Vietnam despite reservations about the war. Politics, especially his father's bid for reelection, was a factor in both decisions, friends say.
He was 'kind of a square'
In Vietnam, where he served half a year in the relatively protected job of Army reporter, Gore earned a reputation as "kind of a square" who played basketball, "yakked" constantly about his new wife, Tipper, and was preoccupied with going home. "He never got in any trouble," recalls Army buddy Michael O'Hara. "He did what they told him to do."
Once back in Tennessee, Gore attended divinity school in a soul-searching phase. He then worked as a reporter until 1976, when an open House seat gave him a shot at Congress. Gore decided in an instant to run, but grew so nervous before formally announcing his candidacy that he threw up.
For the next 23 years, Gore's political career followed a pattern of deference to his seniors in Congress and the White House, and specialization - often through exhaustive, systematic study - in technically complex but important issues such as nuclear deterrence and the environment. In Congress, Gore lacked a major committee chairmanship and did not seek leadership positions, so he "was forced to put together alliances and be part of a team ... to advance," recalls Mr. Neel, a Gore aide at the time.
"He was very sensitive to senior members ... always very respectful," agrees former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta, who served with Gore in the House.
While in Washington, Gore maintained a powerful commitment to family, admitting at times that he felt deeply torn between his political career and time away from his four children. When six-year-old Albert was seriously injured in 1989, then Senator Gore spent almost a month at his side. "We would get in his old car, a broken down Lincoln, drive to Baltimore to the hospital, and try to get work done while Albert was sleeping," says Neel. "It would have been easy for him to let Tipper do it."
Gore decided, partly for family reasons, not to run for president in 1992. Once elected veep, Gore, along with Hillary Clinton, served as an important adviser to the president. In the White House, Gore has been "a voice of reason at key meetings," Mr. Panetta says. Clinton has delegated genuine authority to Gore in his areas of expertise - the environment, technology, Russia, and foreign policy generally - as well as the "reinventing government" portfolio.
It's in these areas that Gore's leadership - focused, narrow, but still passionate - has come through. Cerebral and policy-wonkish, Gore often seems most animated, raising his voice and gesturing, when talking about the intricacies of climate change or the Human Genome Project. Colleagues admit he can be monotonously long-winded, somewhat rigid in his views, and may lose sight of the forest for the trees. But they say his futurist tendencies give him foresight rare for a politician today.
Still, despite advocacy that has bordered on zeal, bold results are lacking. For example, former Gore communications director Marla Romash asserts that he "educated the American people almost single-handedly" about global warming. But actions to curb US greenhouse emissions have proved elusive.
Similarly, his effort to downsize, invigorate, and "reinvent" the federal bureaucracy has been limited by the political imperative of protecting union jobs. Mr. Light of Brookings, an expert on the initiative, gives it "a soft B."
Test of leadership, on the stump
Today, in what is perhaps Gore's biggest leadership test - how well he runs his own presidential campaign - the picture also appears mixed. Until a recent shake-up, including a sharp cut in staff and move to Tennessee, "[Gore's] was a campaign that wasn't in full control," Neel says.
Others say he still has too many advisers who are trying to redefine him - with an earth-toned wardrobe, heavy coaching, and tips on becoming an "alpha male" - in ways that make him appear choreographed and unauthentic.
Indeed, on the campaign trail, Gore at times seems to try too hard to connect. In a taupe pullover and black cowboy boots, he roams the floor at open meetings, kneels down at a diner to chat with breakfasting locals, stands inches close to people, and virtually stares into their eyes.
And voters are noticing. At one recent New Hampshire meeting, businesswoman Lisa Kerber of Marlborough stood up and pleaded with Gore to be himself. "I liked Al Gore. I want to see Al Gore as he used to be, not some reinvented person."
This sums up what many consider the challenge for Gore: to assert his fitness to lead, not be No. 2, while remaining truly himself - predictable and loyal, relatively scandal-free, and, yes, a little boring.
The message from many voters and those who know Gore is that his best shot at winning election is to abandon any effort to become the "alpha male" brand of leader - to admit that he will never, not once, clench his jaw like Clinton, or flash the sly, boyish smile of the Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Portsmouth resident Patty Poisson, watching Gore somewhat stiffly campaigning door-to-door in her Roman Catholic working-class neighborhood, says: "We're probably better off with someone who might not be so pleasingly smiling to the crowd - but with a serious person.... You can see where flamboyancy can get you."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society