WEST DES MOINES, IOWA — In most suburbs, Saturday afternoons are all about cruising the mall and ferrying kids to dance lessons or hockey practice.
But not in Iowa, where the nation's first presidential caucus is just two weeks away. Here in a Des Moines suburb, a foursome of friends gathers around the TV - notepads in hand - to watch Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley spar over their presidential qualifications.
In the group are two teachers, a lawyer, and a state official. Two are undecided. One is a recent Gore convert. One leans Republican.
In all, they're a politically aware, upper-middle-class group, typical of caucus-goers. And if they provide a glare-free window into the fickle political hearts of Iowa voters, the outlook for Mr. Gore may well be brightening.
Contradicting the conventional wisdom about Gore as being stiff and scripted, the group here - in perhaps its strongest consensus - characterized him as "relaxed" and "energetic." With these typical Iowans, manners also count for a lot, and the vice president got points for being "nice" and for complimenting Mr. Bradley during his closing remarks.
In total, their observations ranged from the superficial to the serious - from Gore's "finely chiseled chin" to the dangers of American isolationism.
Calling Gore a "Southern gentleman," Bonnie Bergstrom, a bubbly reading teacher and mother of three, says, "Bradley lost a lot of points because he didn't compliment Gore back." She adds, "I just notice those things." She was undecided before the debate, but Gore's good manners "hint at the kind of character I think we should have in the White House."
During the debate, Gore also talks about his wife and daughters and about how his mother was one of the first female graduates of Vanderbilt University law school in Nashville, Tenn. This impresses the three women in the group.
"We know the influence a mother has on her sons," says Mrs. Bergstrom. "And we know what it's like to have daughters' influences. Even though I don't know all the details of his plans, I know he's not going to be let off the hook by those women."
The other women in the group - lawyer Roxann Ryan and preschool teacher Barbie Harding - smile and laugh in agreement.
As for the token male in the room, father and husband Randy Bergstrom - who's also undecided - just smiles and rolls his eyes, saying, "Poor Al Gore!"
The most recent Des Moines Register poll shows other Iowans may be sympathetic to Gore, too. Fifty-four percent of likely caucus goers said they favor him, while 33 percent favor Bradley - a 21 percent gap. In June, the gap was 40 points, so Bradley has made big inroads. But his momentum appears to have slowed recently.
One reason for the slowdown may be that many here are economically content and thus aren't really itching for the change Bradley represents. In the Register poll, about two-thirds of respondents said they're taking part in the national prosperity.
Indeed, the foursome is interested in - but ultimately skeptical of - Bradley's plans for big change. "What struck me is that Bradley is into all this big government stuff, especially universal health care," says Mr. Bergstrom, a lawyer who is popular with neighborhood kids because he built a skateboarding half pipe in the back yard.
And while many across the country see Gore's three decades in Washington as a drawback, Mr. Bergstrom says it may have taught him something. "Gore learned a lot with the Clinton health-care debacle," he says. "He learned about what can be pushed through and what can't be."
"That's right," Mrs. Harding chimes in. This preschool teacher, mother of four, and maker of a mean chocolate cake (which she brought for the group) usually votes Republican. She's skeptical of big government and surmises perhaps Gore is, too, because of his "reinventing government" initiative.
"He's realized you don't put the federal government anywhere where you want something done," she says, perched on the floral-print couch.
As for education, neither candidate does well. "I like the idealism of both of them," says Mrs. Bergstrom. But she's skeptical whether they'll do what it takes. With overcrowding and low teacher pay, "We're talking about getting rid of the whole defense budget to do what really needs to be done," she says.
Bradley does score some points, however, on foreign policy. He says the US can't be the world's policeman and must work with the United Nations. That resonates with Mrs. Bergstrom, who thinks the US shouldn't throw its weight around.
"What makes us think we should be remaking other nations in our image and likeness?" she asks, quoting a radio host she heard recently.
But Ms. Ryan, an assistant state attorney general and Gore supporter, says the US must be engaged in the world. "Just look at France back in the 1700s," she says. "They believed what we believed - and sent all kinds of weapons to the little United States." She worries the US could return to the isolationism of early 1900s.
Despite differing opinions on foreign policy, there's broad agreement on the quality of Gore's chin. As Mrs. Bergstrom puts it with a chuckle, "As much as we don't like to admit it, I think we go for the finely chiseled features." And for this group, that means Gore all the way.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society