For his final 15 days of presidential barnstorming, Al Gore plans to have one overriding message: Call it the "All Economy, All the Time" tour.
After months of running on everything from campaign-finance reform to helping parents deal with Hollywood violence, the Democratic nominee has concluded one issue will define the race: economic stewardship.
The strategy has built-in benefits - but also big risks. By wrapping himself in the mantle of the longest economic expansion in US history, Mr. Gore can portray himself as the steady hand - and criticize George W. Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut as a threat to the nation's prosperity.
This approach could backfire, though. There's a distinct possibility that golden-economy voters care more about character and personal connection than anything else - two perceived strengths of Gore's Republican challenger.
Even if Gore's message is sharp and clear, the task of getting it out to voters is apparently going to be a one-man job. Aside from Joe Lieberman, his ticket mate, Gore has few other big names to tap on his behalf - and he's avoided direct help from President Clinton, perhaps his most effective, if most controversial, ally.
Mr. Bush, meanwhile, is dispatching scores of surrogates, including 29 Republican governors this week, to reinforce his campaign themes and deflect Gore's thrusts.
The Gore rationale
According to the polls, Gore must make up ground. If he doesn't, many expect him to turn negative. But in the meantime, the positive side of Gore's message is that it's all about the economy.
"What he's recognized is that he had his moment of connection with the American people - the moment of 'The Kiss' at the convention," says independent pollster John Zogby, "but now he's just trying to make a hard-headed, rational argument that he'd be the best president."
Gore's main pitch has several elements:
* He would pay off the national debt by 2012, while Bush doesn't have a plan to pay it off.
* He would extend the life of Social Security until 2055, while Bush, he says, would bankrupt it by 2023.
* He would invest responsibly in public education, prescription-drug benefits, and other programs to help those in need, while Bush would risk federal budget deficits with his big tax cut.
Republicans counter that the big projected surpluses allow for a tax cut, paying off the debt, and increasing spending. And they say Bush's Social Security plan to allow individual investment in the stock market will bring greater returns - and more security - to citizens.
Nonetheless, Gore's new campaign-trail refrain is: "Prosperity itself is on the ballot this year." Speaking of the current good times - and the Clinton-Gore administration's role in them - Gore said last week at Columbia University here in New York: "It wasn't easy to get here, and I don't believe our future prosperity is foreordained."
Gore insists his criticisms of Bush aren't personal. "I'm not questioning Governor Bush's heart," he said at Columbia, "I'm questioning his priorities."
In fact, nothing seems to deter him from his laserlike focus on the economy. In a town-hall meeting in Des Moines last week, a grandmotherly woman stood up to suggest that Gore bring up the admittedly "touchy" issue of Bush being "untrustworthy until he was 40 years old." Gore responded with wide eyes and laughter. "You're right that it's touchy," he said, "and I'm not going to touch it!"
To the charge that voters may want more "heart" or "vision" or "authenticity" in a candidate and his message, Gore senior adviser Greg Simon says: "At the heart of the Gore plan is a very humane pitch: Do we want to give the best of our prosperity to the top 1 percent of Americans - or to kids who need a better education or seniors who need prescription drugs? Ultimately it's an emotional argument."
To critics, the focus on reducing the national debt is too dry, especially with women, who make up more than 60 percent of undecided voters.
"He's probably already gotten as much mileage out of the economic argument as he's going to get," says Linda Hirshman, a visiting professor in women's studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Somehow, she adds, "the Gore folks need to move a little of the country's irrational exuberance in their direction." To do it, they have two choices: "Bring out Mr. Charisma - President Clinton - or shave a couple points off Bush's 'I have a good heart' image."
Should he play the Clinton card?
Using Clinton as a surrogate has bonuses and risks for Gore. He's considered eloquent and able - but he could also overshadow Gore. Also, his presence reminds some voters of various scandals that spanned much of the Clinton administration. Yet Mr. Clinton inspires other voters, especially blacks and Hispanics, key parts of Gore's base.
Clinton campaigned in Indiana for Gore this weekend, which could be the beginning of a bigger role for him, especially if the polls continue to show Bush with a slight but steady edge. Also, Gore may need to recruit others to hit the trail for him, given Bush's use of Republican governors, and, last week, his wife and mother.
Another option for Gore is to criticize Bush more harshly - something many expect if the polls stay steady. If they do, says Bush adviser Charles Black, "The only way you're going to win is in getting the other guy down."
But for now, the Gore camp appears to consider 2000 a redux of the 1992 "it's the economy, stupid" campaign.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society