For Gore, finally, momentum arrives

His Midwest tour rides the optimism generated by a jump in the polls.

If history shows a turning point in Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign - a point where the long-struggling vice president knit together a message that snagged votes and fired enthusiasm - it may point back to a raucous rally one balmy summer night in a town called, of all things, Clinton.

It was here in Iowa that Mr. Gore and his wife, Tipper, charged on stage at about 11 p.m. Saturday, two hours late. They were more than beaming. It had already been a stellar day.

For the first time, a major poll showed Gore beating Republican rival George W. Bush, lifting his hopes that his convention speech two days earlier had resonated with voters. He'd also been honing a populist message on a Mississippi River boat trip, celebrating the gangbusters economy but also insisting that specific changes were still needed. It was Mrs. Gore's birthday, too. And they'd both just come from a leisurely party atop the Mark Twain paddle-wheeler.

There was a sense that momentum might finally have graced the

After mounting the platform, Gore surveyed a charged-up crowd sprawled across the lawn of an imposing brick courthouse - and filled with "Happy Birthday, Tipper" signs. Then, a man known for rarely deviating from his stump speech, did just that - even acknowledging the crowd's likely skepticism.

"I know what people say about politicians," he yelled in a hoarse voice. "You say the word 'politician' and you know what goes across their mind," he said. "I don't even want to get into it," he added, smiling and waving his hand dismissively as the crowd tittered in agreement.

But he insisted he's serious about change. And while earlier in the trip, he had simply railed against Big Oil and Big Pharmaceutical Companies, this night he took a more sympathetic approach. "Don't tell me there aren't families out there having a tough time - who want more time with their children and their family, who are having trouble with car payments and house payments."

To respond, he launched into a raft of specifics - a middle-class tax cut, a prescription-drug benefit for seniors, healthcare coverage for all children by 2004 - and promised to continue holding "open meetings" if elected.

For all the buzz about Gore's approach being pure old-style populism, adviser Greg Simon insists that it's not just aimed at lower-middle-class families. "Working families isn't a code word for poor people," he says.

"There are plenty of middle- and upper-middle-class families who are fighting urban sprawl," Mr. Simon says, "who are trying to raise their kids in a culture of guns, who worry about healthcare for their parents and education for their kids."

While old-school populists might appeal to voters who shop at, say, Kmart - while scorning the Pottery Barn set - Gore is appealing to "price-club voters," Simon says. They're from several economic groups, and looking for bargains and improvements in their lives. "It's a pretty wide range of folks."

But in this economy, most observers agree Gore is taking a risk.

"He's trying to do the old populist Democratic spiel," says California GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum. "At the same time, he's trying to appeal to more moderate independents - the entrepreneurs. He's trying to get it both ways, and it'll be interesting to see if he can pull it off."

There's the danger, he says, that Gore will appear divisive in contrast to Bush's more general, "I'm a uniter, not a divider"

The history of populism is littered with failures, including the original populist farmers who couldn't get William Jennings Bryan elected president in the 1800s. There was Bob Dole's lackluster "prairie populist" campaign in 1996. And Barry Goldwater's "silent majority" in 1964.

But there are successes, too. Theodore Roosevelt railed against the "malefactors of great wealth," while Franklin Roosevelt assailed the "economic royalists" during the New Deal.

For populist campaigning to work, "the candidate's history and biography have to fit with the campaign slogan," says Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. And there has to be a fair amount of "class envy" in society - which could be lacking today, given a golden economy in which 50 percent of Americans own stock.

But there was evidence, this weekend anyway, that Gore's approach is working. A Newsweek poll released Saturday put Gore ahead of Bush, 48 percent to 42 percent. Two weeks ago, Bush led by 11 points after his convention.

Gore picked up ground in respondents' perception of his leadership abilities, an area he where he has long lagged behind Bush. Nearly half the respondents said Gore's convention speech made them lean toward him. Two other polls also showed a tightening of the race.

Gore commented on the polls while on board, saying wryly, "I'm beginning to think that polls have a little more relevance as we get closer to the election."

Back at the rally in Clinton, the message took hold.

Steve and Andrea Brenner, a 30something couple from Sterling, Ill., are longtime Democrats, but they'd never been passionate about politics. "This is even my first campaign button," said Andrea.

But after the speech, they were exuberant. "It sounds like he's really out for the middle class," Andrea said. "We're not poor, but I'm looking at taking care of my older parents. And I'm a teacher. We've got bricks falling out at our school." Suddenly, they were pledging to campaign for Gore.

For perspective, there's the fact that Gore's boat trip included stops in states that should already be solidly in his camp - Wisconsin and Iowa. The fact he had to campaign there hints at continuing trouble with his Democratic base.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush tweaked Gore by campaigning last weekend in Gore's home state of Tennessee.

And lest Gore be portrayed as suddenly gregarious, there was the intensely awkward 10 minutes while the boat sat in a lock, less than 24 hours earlier.

Gore stood on deck talking to a crowd of about 100 on shore. At one point he stiffly asked, "So do you have any questions on the issues?" Little response.

When the crowd boasted about the local girls' volleyball team, Gore enthused, "So do y'all support Title IX?" Blank stares. (It's a federal law requiring equal funding for girls' athletic teams.)

But some observers see his new oft-repeated line that the presidential race "isn't a popularity contest" as giving him space to simply be the policy wonk he is.

Furthermore, the campaign is shifting, if incrementally, toward issues. Democrats have long insisted they will win if this becomes a race about issues. And indeed, this week will see a flurry of education and tax-cut specifics from both candidates.

After the rally, Gore was hardly thinking issues. The crowd sang happy birthday to Tipper. The Gores broke into a perky swing-dance. The vice president lunged into the crowd, high-fiving, pinching babies' noses, laughing.

Back on the bus, the media were positively agog. They had already been wowed by an off-the-record party with the Gores on the boat's top deck that included small talk and dancing to Bruce Springsteen with Al and Tipper.

But now this. "What'd they do with the real Al Gore?" one dumfounded reporter asked.

The question for the campaign ahead, of course, is whether Gore can maintain the spontaneity and sympathetic tone of the Clinton rally without seeming scripted.

Yes or no, the late-night gig was a highlight.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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