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Democrats not leaving as one happy family

The main task for Al Gore, alongside running mate Joseph Lieberman, was convincing people that he is likable.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 2000

LOS ANGELES -- Al Gore heads down the Mississippi River this morning in search of the bounce.

The bounce refers to the surge in opinion polls presidential candidates expect following political conventions. George W. Bush got a bounce after the Republican National Convention two weeks ago, but he needed it less than Gore. The Texas governor already was ahead.

Now Gore is hunting for his bounce as he floats along the Mississippi on a four-day, 400-mile boat trip to Mark Twain's home town of Hannibal, Mo. Whether he finds it depends on the reaction to Thursday night's acceptance speech that mixed public policy with personal touches and was designed to once again reintroduce himself to the country.

If Gore convinced enough voters that he is a likable fellow who has taken on "powerful forces" and is not the wooden, calculating politician he is often labeled, his world will be brighter this weekend.

Otherwise, the vice president is in trouble.

The Democratic National Convention turned out to be a messy affair with an undercurrent of discontent. Most Republicans are genuinely in love with the Bush family, and those who aren't want to win so badly they keep quiet. After being out of power for eight years, the GOP is so focused on moving back into the White House that their members are waiting to hash out their differences until after the election. The Democrats haven't been able to wait and are more open about their disagreements.

This convention did not dispel the notion that they support Gore more out of obligation than affection. The adoration showered on President Clinton on Monday night seemed more personal, more visceral than the applause Gore elicited for his discussion of similar issues Thursday night.

"It's hard for people to release their loyalty to Clinton and give it to Gore," said Gerald White, a 37-year-old Florida delegate from Tampa who likes the vice president. "A lot of people just need to know him."

So we heard from Gore's college pal, actor Tommy Lee Jones, who talked of shooting pool and watching Star Trek with him. And from John Tyson, who went with Gore to register for the draft. And from Gore's daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, who remembered what her Dad used to make her for breakfast.

Toast. With lots of butter.

"I stand here tonight as my own man," Gore said Thursday night as he tried to escape Clinton's shadow, "and I want you to know me for who I truly am."

If he gets a bounce in the polls, he will have done it himself.

Clinton's glowing account of the last eight years did not provide a launching pad. Liberal Night, featuring the Kennedys and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was nostalgic but hardly visionary. Running mate Joseph Lieberman created more excitement than anyone with his speech Wednesday night, but voters don't select a president because they like the second banana.

They also don't vote solely on the issues, no matter how hard the Democrats are trying to focus on the detailed differences between Gore and Bush on tax cuts, Social Security and health care. Voters want to personally like their candidates, and right now they don't like Gore as much as they like Bush.

There are indications that the convention was not selling as well as Democrats hoped before Gore took the stage. On the plus side, the Battleground 2000 tracking poll found that Gore has begun to consolidate some of the Democratic base and attract some of the critical independent voters.

But the polling also found that Gore actually lost some support during the convention among conservative Democrats, Hispanics and white married working mothers.

"What they've done is dug a hole here where they probably will wind up no better than when they started," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas of the poll.

For Gore, that's not good enough.

The Republican convention was fairly criticized as a well-choreographed stage show that hid the hard-edged GOP leaders of Congress and replaced them with a steady stream of Hispanics, African-Americans and women. Jackson, in the best line of this week of Teleprompter filler, called it "the inclusion illusion."

But Republicans left Philadelphia united and confident. Democrats are leaving Los Angeles this morning a bit divided and uncertain.

There is an underlying tension between Jewish Democrats excited about Lieberman, the first Jewish American on a mainstream national ticket, and black Democrats wary of his earlier statements on affirmative action and school vouchers. There is a lingering doubt about Gore that ordinary delegates acknowledge more freely than the party officials.

"I'm worried because I know how much TV can influence an election, and Gore doesn't come across on TV as well as President Clinton does," Michigan delegate Bill Hanner told USA Today.

At Thursday's Florida breakfast, state party Chairman Bob Poe referred to that observation and lashed out at the media.

"I didn't see the first scintilla of doubt in that convention hall," said Poe, who must not have been looking too hard. "There are some media who are just anti-Democrat."

Glad to hear the "liberal media bias" cliche has been squashed.

If Gore's speech is well-received and he gets a nice bounce in opinion polls, the vice president will be rolling on the river this weekend and the convention complaints will be forgotten.

If Gore bounces like a rock and still lags behind Bush come Labor Day, the murmurs of discontent will only grow louder.

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