Stop! Undecided voters ahead

On A chill, sunny autumn afternoon in the crimson-tinged hills of central Michigan, Al Gore's campaign is rolling down Interstate 96, trolling for votes.

Suddenly there's word of a crowd ahead at a rest stop. "O.T.R.!" yells a staffer, invoking campaign lingo for an unscheduled stop. But halting the entourage is a bit more complicated than pulling over the family minivan.

The half-mile long string of vehicles includes some 25 police-motorcycle escorts, 11 tour buses, two vice-presidential limos, and scores of vans, Suburbans, and police cars - all to ferry more than 200 journalists and legions of staff and Secret Service agents.

As the motorcade fills the rest-stop parking lot, it becomes clear that the "crowd" is actually a tiny knot of people. Total count: 28.

So with 150 journalists and staff looking on, and at least 10 burly agents protecting him, Mr. Gore works the "rope line" - a piece of twine tied between two trees - reaching across to shake hands and sign autographs.

Then it's back on the bus - and back to the hunt.

There's a gotta-get-every-vote freneticism in these final days of Campaign 2000, especially for Gore, the underdog-by-a-hair. In fact, he's become something of a turbo-charged pinball, bouncing from state to state and between trying to catch Republican rival George W. Bush in the polls, fending off Ralph Nader, and dealing with how President Clinton will campaign for him.

But if some stops on the trail seem of questionable value, others do rally important groups - while providing some American-pie moments.

Near dusk, as the motorcade rolls through the hills of Wisconsin - which look a lot like the hills of Michigan - it pauses in the one-stoplight town of Chilton, population 941.

With the tour buses at a husky idle, Al and Tipper Gore descend - and the crowd of several hundred bubbles with glee. Tipper, camera slung over her shoulder as always, heads over to Irene Klein and Joyce Broker, two jovial grandma types standing behind a rope line.

Tipper and Irene both raise their cameras to take pictures of each other. Both chuckle. Tipper grabs a Secret Service agent to pose with, and Irene clicks away.

Then, as Tipper raises her camera, the ladies lean in close and smash their glasses together. They titter in embarrassment as smiles spread all around.

After she shakes hands with Tipper, Irene declares, "I shook Jackie Kennedy's hand, too, in 1960."

In fact, no presidential candidate - or his wife - has been in Chilton since the Kennedys. In tight races like 1960 and 2000, little towns count.

Even towns with not so many Democrats.

"We had 24 hours to get this crowd out here," Irene boasts, her wrap-around sunglasses perched on her white-coifed head. She and Joyce are co-chairs of the county Democratic Party. "We've only got 13 members," says Joyce, "but we sure got a lot more people out here than that."

After this pit stop - and with all those "closet Democrats" Irene claims are out there - perhaps there's hope for Gore here.

The buses rumble on.

Among those who see him day in and day out, Gore is known as an uneven campaigner - hot at one stop, awkward at the next - as two events in Muskegon, Mich., show.

On a cloudless morning along the shores of Lake Michigan, aides promise he'll give a "major address" - the "closing argument" of the campaign.

A simple podium stands at the water's edge. It's facing the beach and a crowd of about 100 people, who are seated in white wooden folding chairs, sipping hot cider.

Before Gore arrives, a staffer asks for this to be a dignified event, without too much hollering. But not too quiet, he requests: "Be sure to take your gloves off - that makes the clapping louder."

Then the Gores appear about 100 yards down the beach, Tipper with a red scarf, Al with a red tie. They stroll toward the crowd, their dark dress shoes slipping unsurely in the sand.

Then, after such hype, Gore reads what is essentially his regular stump speech - at a slower, more-serious pace, with a few rhetorical ribbons tied on - while standing on a beach in a dark suit.

"This election represents a fork in the road," he intones. "We can build on our prosperity, and make sure it enriches all our families, and not just the few. Or we can squander this moment - and lose the best chance in a generation to secure the next American century."

The applause fades fairly quickly.

But just 12 hours earlier, it was an entirely different scene. In fact, he's often at his best after the sun goes down.

A few hours after sunset, as the motorcade rolls into the working-class town, Jon Bon Jovi - that blue-collar rock-and-roll favorite who travels with Gore - is warming up the crowd of about 15,000.

Signs bobbing amid the sea of faces say, "Tipper Rocks" and "Teachers for Gore-Lieberman." The "Teamsters Local 406" semi-trailer parked in the back hints at the driving force behind the rally.

During his speech, Gore is alternately smiling and serious, speaking softly and then with gusto.

"I readily admit that I'm a pretty serious guy, but that's a serious job," he says, as the crowd roars its agreement.

As he finishes, he runs off the podium into the crowd. Soon he's standing on the lower rung of a metal barrier, lunging in to high-five folks four rows back.

After one trip around the crowd, he's suddenly doing another, smiling, laughing, and clearly energized.

"He was awesome, just awesome," proclaims Nancy Jones, a bubbly resident named who then stayed up all night watching reruns of the rally on local TV. The next morning she pulls her two boys out of school, "even though they had perfect attendance records," to go to the beach event.

"I was raised Democrat," she says, "and he reminds me of Kennedy."

It's a comparison Gore would clearly relish - especially because it was Kennedy who eked out victory in 1960, the last time a presidential race was so close.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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