Furrowed brows in Austin

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Conventions aren't just celebrations of party identity or excuses to party. They are, in a larger sense, temporary, make-believe worlds. They're giant multilevel political terrariums where the outside world seems more remote and irrelevant at each deeper step.

The host city is the top level. The participating hotels and events are another. The surrounding media halls are still another. And at the very heart of it all is the convention arena itself.

There is nothing like seeing a speech in the arena. The crowd enthusiasm, the lighting, the smoke can make a political speech into a true event - an exciting moment. And that in itself is proof of the artificiality of it all. Get 12,000 people chanting rhythmically and you can even make four days of C-SPAN seem riveting - which is essentially what conventions try to do.

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Conscious of this effect, several journalists decided to watch Al Gore's acceptance speech in L.A. from the media lounge, on TV, rather than the hall - this of course had nothing to do with the free food and drink.

As the speech began, snickers were audible and by the halfway point, they began to approach laughter. One journalist labeled it a disaster. And as we left the viewing area, it was easy to think that Mr. Gore, whom the media had charged with giving the "speech of his life," had failed.

Inside the Staples Center cocoon, people may have been "raising the roof," but this was largely written off as wishful thinking.

Then the interviews with independent voters far away from Staples began to roll in, and the polls began to move. One poll moved Gore from 16 points down to one point up, another from 10 down tosix up. The verdict: While Gore's hour-long acceptance speech may have been low on rhetorical flourishes, it may have actually accomplished something with voters.

What happened? All last week in L.A., any Democrat who could find a reporter to listen said the reason Gore was trailing George W. Bush was that voters had no idea who Gore was. Once the voters got to know him, they said, the polls would shift.

This idea wasn't completely discounted by reporters at the breakfasts, lunches, and briefings where it was floated. It's tough for veeps to break out on their own.

The consensus, however, was that the Democrats were taking this idea too far. People may not know Gore, but they have a rough idea of who he is. Besides, once voters knew him better, there was no assurance they'd prefer him to Bush, who is quite a likable guy.

But the sudden change in the numbers makes one wonder if there was a bit of truth in all the spin. It's still very early of course. This week's polls are next week's bird-cage linings.But don't be surprised if there are a few furrowed brows around Austin this week for two reasons.

First, since 1984 the presidential candidate leading after the conventions has won the presidency.

Second, whatever Republicans say this week about how they always knew it was going to be a close race, this isn't completely true. In Philadelphia, the Republicans were supremely confident. And more than a few spinners made it clear they not only thought victory was possible, they expected it. And this has been the prevailing attitude among those covering this race. It has shaped the bubble the media has been living in for the last few months - the one that created theconventions' atmosphereand the snickering in the media lounge as Gore spoke.

Not many reporters believed Gore would leave L.A. with a lead in any poll.

The new story line now - and maybe the new bubble - is the "reinvigorated" Gore. Whether this holds true remains to be seen. Convention bounces are notoriously short-lived.

But if a week from now Gore's bounce remains intact - and that's a big if - the shift coming out of L.A. may be more significant. Because Gore's speech was not a barn burner. It lacked big metaphorical language and "from the mountaintop" perspective. It was Gore being Gore - the kind of stuff you'll hear a lot for the next few months.

And if it ends up that all the vice president needs to do to win voters is deliver that kind of speech, the brows will grow more furrowed in Austin.

Because the real meaning is that W.'s support is softer than anyone imagined.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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