Gore's quest for a redefining moment

He makes presidential bid official, emphasizing family and values

Al Gore officially kicked off his presidential campaign yesterday with country music. But he could just as easily have used a Broadway hit: "I've Gotta Be Me."

This is the week Mr. Gore comes out from under the shadow of his boss "to tell his story," to be his own man.

In some ways, it seems bizarre that a man almost bred to run for president - who's held so many titles in Washington that his bio reads like a "Who's Who" of American politics - would need to define himself for voters. Yet polls show that Americans do not know the vice president very well - except as a wooden wonk.

So the effort begins in earnest to reveal the "real" Al - the loyal husband and father of four, the former divinity school student who once told Harvard graduates he believes "in serving God and trying to do His will."

The task is a formidable one. Gore must distance himself from the ethical lapses of the Clinton years, as well as surmount a determined challenger in the Democratic primary and what is likely to be a potent Republican in the general election.

This week's trip to Iowa, New Hampshire, New York, and the West Coast will offer an early view of the multi- dimensional Gore - as well as how he intends to stand apart from President Clinton.

"In the coming weeks, [Gore will show] a side of him not always seen - a family man, a man of faith," says Elaine Kamarck, issues director for the Gore campaign.

The family theme was apparent yesterday, as the vice president announced his candidacy from the Smith County courthouse in his hometown of Carthage, Tenn. Every race, including his '88 presidential bid, began at this courthouse, where he was joined yesterday by his mother, wife, and kids - including daughter Karenna, just 10 days from her baby's due date.

"With your help, I will take my own values of faith and family to the presidency to build an America that is not only better off, but better," Gore said, to the roar of a cheering crowd.

Emphasizing the vice president's family values is "a good strategy," says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. Character will count in this race, he says, but for Gore, it may not be the main issue.

So far, Gore's worst family scandal appears to be the day his son was suspended from private school for smoking and drinking, although the vice president himself was caught up in allegations of questionable fund-raising for the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.

"I don't think people doubt Al Gore's character," says Mr. Rothenberg. What should concern the campaign, he says, is "more of a subliminal discomfort" among voters with the Clinton administration.

"There's a desire for change without dramatic change," says Rothenberg. This is one reason Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), campaigning as a "compassionate conservative," has run 10 to 20 points ahead of Gore for the past six months in voter preference polls.

The last vice president to aspire to the Oval Office didn't have the change-but-no-change problem. George Bush ran his 1992 campaign pretty much as a vote for a third Reagan term. Not only were President Reagan's tax cuts popular, but so was his persona. On the other hand, Mr. Bush was a recordbreaker - the first sitting vice president since Martin Van Buren (in 1836) to ascend to the Oval Office.

For Gore's 18-month coming-out party, the trick is to strike a fine balance that capitalizes on the successes of the Clinton administration, but still allows the vice president to separate himself from it.

To do this, Gore is framing his message around the future, which includes taking the successes of the past several steps forward, says Gore adviser Christopher Edley. On the economy, for instance, that means spreading the prosperity; on education, it means speeding up reform; on health care, it means better home and community service for the elderly so they can avoid expensive nursing homes.

"You'll see his ability to look at the horizon and identify the next set of challenges and the direction in which the nation needs to move, even if the issue [such as global warming] is well below public consciousness," says Mr. Edley. Gore will do this, he adds, even if there are "some disagreements with Clinton."

In his announcement speech yesterday, Gore spoke on all these themes - briefly. It's a contrast to his usual practice, which has been to delve into the specifics of universal preschool or his plan to federally subsidize the social work of religious organizations.

In the months ahead, Gore will continue to speak in detail about his plans - an approach, say his advisers, that shows his experience and familiarity with the issues. As Gore said this week: "I'm not going to just deal in platitudes. I'm going to deal with policies and specific choices."

That's a contrast to what Democratic competitor Bill Bradley is doing. He and Governor Bush, the GOP front-runner, have taken the more traditional approach of sticking to generalities at this early stage of the campaign.

There's good reason for this tradition. The risk in being specific now is that it gives opponents time to pick your ideas apart, and time for voters to numb to them.

"Getting specific adds a certain gravitas to his candidacy and establishes him as his own man. But I'm not sure it's a good idea," says George Edwards of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University in College Station.

OBSERVERS such as Mr. Edwards say Gore will be helped simply by campaigning on his own. His profile will rise, and voters will, eventually, get to know him. And while Gore's campaign manager, Tony Coelho, is considering hiring Clinton's debate coach to help the candidate, Edwards and others say the wooden factor may not be all that important.

"I don't think we should put much store in concepts like charisma," says Edwards. America has frequently elected presidents without it - Jimmy Carter, for instance. "It's not a disqualification for the job," but as Clinton has shown, it certainly helps to have it.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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