Sunday, June 25, 2000

Gore needs to find himself

Candidate's ever-changing persona could bring trouble

        LEXINGTON — I know I sound like Beavis talking to Butthead, but Al Gore said “damned.”

        It was just a few days ago, during the vice president's presidential campaign visit to central Kentucky, when the man who is a heartbeat away from the most powerful position on earth couldn't fill a 400-seat hall.

        The Democratic presidential hopeful was in Lexington to announce his retirement savings plan, where the government would operate 401(k)-type accounts for millions of Americans.

        Mr. Gore was giving another of his heartfelt remembrances of growing up, telling the touching tale of how the kids he went to prep school with in Washington didn't have the same financial and educational opportunities as those he spent his summers with back home in Tennessee. (Geez, no kidding.)

        “The ones I spent my summers with in Carthage, Tennessee, were at least as smart, but their families weren't nearly as well off, and I saw the opportunity gap open and widen, and there were times when it broke my heart,” Mr. Gore said.

        “They deserved more than they got, and I'll be DAMNED if I'm gonna let that injustice continue.”

        Profound. Profane. Loud. Ineffective.

        So is this yet another reinvention of the man who has been reinvented more that Frankenstein? A tough, no-nonsense candidate who leaves the makeup at home - did you catch the story that he occasionally touches up with an expensive skin foundation? — and curses like a longshoreman.

        Not the candidate who told the heartfelt remembrance of almost losing his son to a car accident, of losing his sister to cancer, of shaking down Buddhist monks for campaign cash.

        Well, at least Mr. Gore was better than when he appeared at a Louisville union hall last fall. Then he was doing Elizabeth Dole doing Sally Jesse Raphael by taking a microphone and walking through the audience, which has become the most overused and annoying political maneuver since kissing a baby.

        Mr. Gore is working hard to not only jumpstart a lackluster campaign but to shed his image as a lifeless, humorless, stiff.

        Truth be told, Mr. Gore isn't as bland as he is portrayed by his opponents and the media, just as Mr. Bush isn't as stupid as he is often portrayed.

        But reputations, especially in politics, are hard to shake. Perception becomes reality. And if you don't think so, just look at how often Mr. Gore has tried to come up with a new-and-improved persona.

        Not only has he repeatedly tried to come up with some sort of image that will sell with voters, but he has shaken up his campaign staff twice, moved his campaign office from Washington to Tennessee and basically played second fiddle to Mr. Bush since the primary season ended.

        Like it or not, Democrats, Mr. Bush won the spring. That doesn't mean squat, since most people are paying more attention to that insipid Survivor show on TV than they are to the presidential race.

        But it shows cracks in the armor of a candidate who should have learned more about campaigning, having spent the last eight years watching Bill Clinton, the best politician of his generation.

        If Mr. Gore doesn't settle in on exactly what and who he is, it will be Mr. Bush being sworn into office in January. You can DAMN well bet on that.

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics. He can be reached at 578-5581, or by e-mail at