WHEN Albert Gore Jr. was growing up in Washington, D.C., he used to throw water balloons off a hotel roof at passing cars. Now, at 39, he is running for the presidency and is lobbing political grenades at his Democratic rivals. Considered a long shot when he entered the race, Senator Gore has earned a new-found respect as he separates himself from the rest of the Democratic field by accusing his competition of being soft on defense.
The strategy has helped him among conservative Southern Democrats, which is reflected in his move to the top of the polls in the Southern Super Tuesday primary states. In an October Harris poll of the region, Mr. Gore stood just one point behind Jesse Jackson - the current Democratic front-runner in the South.
Energetic, youthful, and a quick study with a voracious intellectual appetite, Al Gore is beginning to impress people. In a recent meeting with reporters, former Democratic National Committee head Robert Strauss said Gore may well become the party's candidate.
Gore calls himself a ``Radio Shack Democrat,'' shorthand for a member of the party particularly attuned to a society growing more dependent on science and technology. ``Elected representatives of a free people must be willing to devote time and attention to understanding the implications of the scientific and technological revolution,'' he explains. ``From changes that affect our ability to compete in the world, to changes that affect the quality of life and the nature of work.''
For those who force him to put a label on his political beliefs, ``I have resorted to the phrase `raging moderate,''' he says. The label is meant ``to convey an inclination to avoid jumping off the deep end in one direction or the other - a tendency to search for a pragmatic solution to the issues at hand - [and] a willingness to bring real passion and energy and commitment to the pursuit of what I think is right.''
Baby-boomer for president
While his congressional performance may demonstrate his intellectual capacity, many voters might ask whether that is enough to qualify a young man for the most powerful leadership position in the free world. Is the American electorate ready for a ``baby boom'' president? It is a thought that hasn't escaped the candidate.
``I don't want to embarrass myself,'' he told one friend when he was trying to decide whether to run.
His wife, Tipper, admits there were early doubts: ``I think we understood that people would be saying, `Well, who is this brash young fellow ... who does he think he is?' At the same time we quickly overcame it.''
Not one to take too many political chances, Gore turned over tax and other personal records to two investigators after Gary Hart dropped out of the race, according to one source close to the candidate. Gore told them to ``try and find something,'' the source says.
Many observers describe him as too stiff, too serious. ``Al doesn't have time to be anything but serious,'' says Jill Gore, a cousin who has watched him grow up.
``I started out the campaign probably a little stiff and a little tight,'' he admits. ``But about two or three months into the campaign I learned how to put it in a better perspective and relax.'' Close friends agree that he does have a sense of humor beneath his no-nonsense demeanor. It's a demeanor derived partly from a disciplined childhood and partly by an earnestness to do his best.
``If Al had a failing, it was over-aggressiveness,'' says a former aide. ``You talk to the guy and he will blank you out,'' says another former staff member, ``... because he has got 12 things on his mind.''
Man with a mission
The young senator does have a sense of mission about his work. His self-assurance comes in large measure from his religious faith. ``I don't wear it on my sleeve or talk about it as part of my political message at all,'' says Gore, a Baptist. ``But ... religion is an extremely important part of my life and of my family's life.''
Gore has a ``sense about himself that he is talented,'' says Thomas Grumbly, the staff director of the only congressional panel Gore has chaired, the Investigations and Oversight subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee.
Mr. Grumbly remembers an evening in New Hampshire spent with the senator on the night Gary Hart dropped out of the race. For days, Grumbly had been watching Mr. Hart's prospects spiral downward under the media's relentless eye. He began to wonder if presidential campaigns were worth the scrutiny. ``Why are you doing this?'' he asked Gore. Grumbly says he answered: ``To whom much is given, much is required.''
Not only does Gore believe he is talented, says Grumbly, he believes ``he has something to offer, and he is intent on making sure ... he gets that out of himself.''
Harvard farm boy
Gore was linked to politics from the day he was born. Like his father, Albert Gore Sr., who represented Tennessee in the House and then the Senate, Al Jr. quickly learned how to live in two cultures - the high-powered social and political life of Washington, D.C., and a rural country life on his parents' farm in Carthage, Tenn.
``I remember most vividly working on the farm,'' says Gore. ``Getting up long before dawn to clean out the hog parlors, feed the cattle, work on the farm all day. That was my normal routine every summer.''
He attended private school at St. Albans School for Boys, on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington. He enjoyed sports, making captain of his football team, and was an honor student.
At a party in 1965 following his senior prom he met his future wife, Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson. ``He called the next day and we literally have been together ever since,'' says Mrs. Gore, whose nickname of Tipper was coined by her mother. Tipper, then 16, remembers a handsome, blue-eyed, very polite young man who stood apart from his peers. ``He was reserved, yet there was an intensity, an energy about him,'' she remembers.
When he was accepted at Harvard, Gore convinced Tipper to attend Boston University. He recently admitted that, as was fairly common among college students at the time, he and Tipper occasionally smoked marijuana.
He began as an English major, ``and then got as far as Chaucer and his contemporaries and decided that maybe that was not for me,'' Gore says. ``I then switched to a government major, partly because it seemed more enjoyable, maybe it seemed a little easier.'' He ended up graduating with honors in government.
Rejects liberal defense position
Like his father, Gore opposed the war in Vietnam. He thought about avoiding the draft, but changed his mind.
``I come from a small town ... with only 2,000 people,'' he says. ``In a community like that, everybody knows who is on the draft board and what the quota is for any given month. If I had figured ways to get out of it ... then one of my friends would have to go in my place. I couldn't imagine going to the going-away party and then pretending nothing had happened.''
His father was also facing a tough reelection battle, and was taking a lot of heat for his antiwar stance.
``Ironically the most effective way I could oppose the war was to volunteer to be a part of it and thereby marginally strengthen his hand in his reelection campaign.'' Albert Gore Sr. lost the election to William Brock.
Gore married Tipper and went off to Vietnam. He was assigned to the Army's 20th Engineer Brigade as a journalist, where he ``carried an M-16 and a pencil.''
``I never had to look the enemy straight in the eye and kill or be killed,'' says Gore. But ``I pulled my shift every night on the perimeter, facing the dark and walking through the jungles....''
In the flock of Democratic candidates, Gore looks the most like a hawk. While identifying diplomacy as the most attractive first line of defense, the senator says ``there are vital American interests in the world that may at some point require us to use force when diplomacy fails.... We have to admit that it is a possibility.''
While the other Democratic candidates are supporting a ban on missile test flights, Gore (and Bruce Babbitt) has opposed the ban. Gore also uses his support of the US presence in the Persian Gulf and the Grenada invasion as evidence of his clear distinction from his ``soft on defense'' competitors.
His critics point out, however, that Gore supported nuclear freeze proposals in 1983 and has opposed military aid for the Nicaraguan contras, funding for chemical weapons, and President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.
At one point Gore spent eight hours a week for 13 months immersed in the nuclear arms question. As a result, he became the first national political figure to advocate substituting single-warhead land-based missiles for multi-warhead weapons.
When he returned from Vietnam, Gore joined the staff of the Nashville Tennessean, a paper that had printed some of his stories from the war. He began on the night-shift police beat, while attending the Vanderbilt University School of Religion in 1971-1972.
He then shifted to city hall reporting and in 1974 enrolled at Vanderbilt Law School. Before finishing his degree he dropped out in 1976 to run for the congressional seat in his district, a race he won. He served in the House until 1985, when he ran for the Senate seat vacated by Howard Baker Jr., now President Reagan's chief of staff, and won in a landslide.
Marathon hearings in Congress
Once in Congress, Gore quickly impressed his colleagues with his serious and energetic style and the breadth of his interests. While on the House Science and Technology Committee he would occasionally hold hearings on subjects so arcane - such as circadian rhythms - that he was often the only committee member attending.
Not everyone on the committee, however, was always pleased with his aggressive style.
Some congressmen ``thought he was a complete hot dog,'' said one former staff member. ``They just resented the fact the guy was a media hound.''
Gore would often run roughshod over congressional courtesies in his rush to establish a voluminous hearing record. His list of hearings subjects includes genetic engineering, organ transplants, and the transfer of American energy technology to the Soviet Union.
``He was just generally intellectually curious about that stuff,'' says a staff member from the Science and Technology Committee. But attracting the media ``wasn't [always] a part of the equation,'' the aide says. ``Sometimes I felt like we were organizing a lot of ... tutorials or seminars for him.''
In response to charges that he disregarded congressional courtesies and hogged the media spotlight, Gore says: ``I don't think you are supposed to be controlled by committee staff or by anyone. ... For every hearing that attracted lots of cameras there were at least four or five or six that had little if any press coverage.''
Running strong for Super Tuesday
Gore's strongest base is in the South, where the Democrats are more moderate, and a strong national defense is valued as much as Southern cooking. Democratic officials in the South like Gore because of his moderate positions. They are afraid that a more liberal candidate will get the party's nomination and compel the more conservative Southern Democrats to vote GOP. The concern isn't so much that another Republican will move into the White House as that a rising GOP tide in 1988 will wash away state and local Democratic officeholders.
Even though he claims to be more than a regional candidate, Gore has all but written off the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses. He complains that the more liberal Iowa Democrats pull candidates so far to the left in the primaries they become unelectable in the general election. Gore's profile, however, is low not only in Iowa. While he may look good for Super Tuesday, national polls show weak name recognition outside of the region.
Gore hopes to show the American electorate that his energy and vision overshadow any concern about his age. His campaign stresses a forward-looking agenda, rather than management and executive experience.
According to his own political forecasting, that just may be his ticket into the White House. ``In 1960,'' he says, ``we went from the oldest President ever to serve as of that time to the youngest President ever to be elected as of that time. By coincidence in 1988 we have the opportunity to do that again.''