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The way to win, Part 2

Here are four things Vice President Al Gore must do to become the next president.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2000


LOS ANGELES -- As the red, white and blue balloons fell at the close of the Democratic National Convention, Gladys Muhammad walked out of the Staples Center on cloud nine.

"I was going to vote for him anyway," the 55-year-old Indiana delegate said after listening to Al Gore accept the nomination for president Thursday night, "but I wasn't sure about him. Now I feel real good."

That is the challenge facing the vice president now that he has stepped out of President Clinton's shadow.

Between now and November, Gore has to transform ambivalence into commitment. And he has to trigger the conversion in an electorate more diverse and disinterested than the Democratic convention delegates.

Gore's intellect is unquestioned. He's a policy hound who can jump from global warming to tax policy in a heartbeat, then design the campaign logo and write the convention speech himself. His experience is unchallenged. The son of a Tennessee senator who grew up to be a congressman and a senator himself before being elected vice president in 1992.

Yet in most polls Gore trails Republican George W. Bush, who has been governor of Texas less than six years and has held no other elected office. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., echoed the frustration of many Democrats last week: "How can it be we are losing to this guy at this moment in the polls?"

The answer is that Bush, so far, has personally connected better with voters. Gore's acceptance speech helped, but he can't consistently win them over on the issues until he wins them over personally.

"He's got to do a lot more talking so people get to know him as Al Gore, his own man," Muhammad said. "We have got to get people to concentrate on the issues."

So how can Gore beat Bush on Nov. 7? There are many scenarios, but here are four keys for Gore to focus on over the next 11 weeks:

1. Capitalize on the economy

In many respects, Gore is a victim of the nation's fat-and-happy attitude. Democrats fear that the longest economic expansion in modern history has lasted so long that voters take it for granted and believe anyone can keep it going.

The vice president's challenge is to convince them otherwise.

Last week, President Clinton reminded a national television audience of the high unemployment and the economic recession under President Bush. He rattled off statistics detailing the turnaround over the past eight years: More than 22-million new jobs, the lowest unemployment in 30 years, the number of families who own stock up 40 percent.

"America's success was not a matter of chance," Clinton said in his convention speech. "It was a matter of choice."

Now voters have to make another choice, and Gore has to show them he knows better than Bush how to maintain economic prosperity and use it wisely.

First, he has to convince voters that the Clinton administration's economic policies have directly affected their lives. He has to show them the connection between eliminating the federal deficit and lower interest rates for auto loans and mortgages. He has to connect the dots between the administration's policies in Washington, initially opposed by every Republican in Congress, and low unemployment and better paying jobs in their own communities.

After reminding them of the past, Gore has to look to the future and contrast his vision with Bush's.

"This campaign is not about taking credit for the economy," Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway said. "It's about using our prosperity wisely so it benefits everyone and not just the few."

The easiest option, of course, is to hammer away at Bush's proposed tax cuts as too risky. The Texas governor would offer across-the-board tax cuts of $1.6-trillion over 10 years that would primarily benefit the wealthiest Americans.

"I will not go along with a huge tax cut for the wealthy at the expense of everyone else," Gore said Thursday night, "and wreck our good economy in the process."

His tax cuts would be less than half what Bush has proposed. They would be targeted at more specific goals, such as paying for college, providing health care and child care, offering job training and eliminating the marriage penalty on the federal income tax.

But the vice president has to go beyond the debate over tax cuts. A broader argument that demonstrates how Gore would use the surplus to pay down the federal debt, protect Social Security and invest in health care could be more effective and appeal to more voters.

With the federal government awash in cash and most Americans reasonably comfortable, Gore's challenge is to demonstrate how his proposals would improve their lives more than Bush's aggressive tax cuts.

2. Saving Social Security and Medicare

Both Gore and Bush pledge to save Social Security. Both would offer a prescription drug benefit to senior citizens. Without checking the details, the casual listener might conclude they have identical positions.

In fact, there are significant differences. Gore's challenge is to explain them without putting anyone to sleep, and his speech Thursday night was one of his better attempts as he mixed in the personal stories of real people.

Neither Gore nor Bush advocate raising the retirement age to 70 as the answer to extending the life of Social Security, and both would use a portion of the budget surplus to keep it financially viable.

But Bush wants to enable younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes from Social Security into private investment accounts. The Texas governor pledges that retirees and older workers will not be affected, but there are plenty of unanswered questions.

What if the economy goes sour and workers lose money in their investment accounts?

What if the Social Security trust fund runs short, and the government has to cut benefits or raise taxes to maintain the same level of benefits?

Gore will keep raising those questions as he pushes his plan to keep Social Security as it is by using more of the budget surplus to pay down federal debt. But he may have muddied the waters by offering a separate plan that would provide federal matching money in the form of tax credits for a new kind of tax-free retirement savings accounts.

There is a similar battle over Medicare and prescription drugs.

Bush proposes a prescription drug benefit that would be offered through private insurance companies and health maintenance organizations and would not be available to every senior. Gore counters with a more traditional, government-run benefit that would be offered through Medicare to all seniors. Half of the cost of prescription drugs would be covered up to $5,000 with no deductible.

Seniors are the most loyal voters. They are particularly influential in Florida, where nearly 20 percent of the state's 15-million residents are older than 65.

But Gore has to get them to pay attention to a level of detail that doesn't fit neatly into a 30-second television commercial.

"Unless we can get down to a bite-sized distinction between what we stand for and what they stand for," Biden said, "they will continue to fuzz it up."

3. Winning back women

Clinton won in 1992 and 1996 largely because of support from women voters. Now women may cost Gore the election.

The Voter.com Battleground 2000 tracking poll found women favoring Bush over Gore last week, 46 percent to 43 percent. Gore led among single women, who are more likely to believe in government's role in providing a social safety net. But more than two of every three married women said they support Bush.

Yet Gore supports the same positions as Clinton on issues that are traditionally important to women, ranging from abortion rights to education to health-care initiatives.

"There's nothing that separates him from Clinton on the issues," said state Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Davie, at the convention. "Maybe he's not as appealing on a personal level, but when it gets to the issues and women think about what's best for their children, they will be for Gore."

Part of the reason that women are more supportive of Bush than they were of Republican Bob Dole in 1996 is that the Texas governor has created a softer image. The GOP now appears less mean-spirited in areas ranging from welfare reform to immigration.

"They're much less threatened by him," said Craig Smith, a former Clinton-Gore campaign strategist.

Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas attributes Bush's advantage among women voters to their interest in restoring morality and integrity to the White House following Clinton's impeachment.

"They have full wallets," he said, "but there are a lot of empty souls running around."

But tracking polls during the convention found character declining as an issue and policy positions becoming more important among voters overall. That is a good trend for Gore if he is to win back women.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner, a former Gore aide, predicted women will return to Gore's camp as the campaign focuses on issues she believes are particularly important to them: the environment, health care, education, caring for the elderly and abortion rights.

Bush is an abortion rights opponent, and his environmental record is viewed as one of his weakest policy areas.

For Gore to win back women, he will have to emphasize those issues and others, including expanding child care initiatives, and enacting new gun controls.

4. Selling the real Al Gore

As much as Gore tries to sell issues, he is going to have to sell himself even more.

By creating an image and avoiding specifics on major policies, Bush is winning on personality and Democrats know it.

"If the campaign is allowed to stay there, I think Al Gore loses," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. "If it is a popularity contest, a lot of people fondly remember George Bush and Ronald Reagan and the things they remember about that era."

Part of Gore's problem, of course, is Clinton -- ironically not because of scandal but because of Clinton's strong personality. The president's ability to connect with voters is rivaled by few other modern politicians. He has set the standard for empathy so high that it would take an uncommon touch to match it, although Bush comes closer than Gore.

Graham and other Democrats say the worst thing Gore could do is try to become a Clinton clone. The vice president makes that mistake on occasion when he holds open meetings and tries to show the same level of personal concern as the president.

The other part of Gore's problem is Gore.

A recent Atlantic Monthly magazine featured a cover portrait of the vice president with vampire teeth, symbolizing his cut-throat debating style.

A recent profile in New Yorker compares Gore's programmed personality to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. A digital readout appears on Schwarzenegger's eyelids, flashing the height, weight and build of each person he sees. Gore, writes Nicholas Lemann, seems to have a similar approach where "you can see Gore read a situation, pause while the script flashes, formulate his response -- and then react."

That may be brilliant. It's also unnatural.

"It's hard to see Al Gore as Mr. Personality," acknowledged Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon. "For anybody up against Clinton, it's going to be tough. But he looks at you, he gives issues and you know he believes what he's talked about."

After all, grumbled Graham: "This is not about a race for prom king, but for president of the United States."

That's true, but voters want to like their candidates, and the Democratic National Convention offered Gore an opportunity to show a national audience that he has more personality.

There were videos of the family, testimonials by actor Tommy Lee Jones and other friends, and a gushy speech by his daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff. A passionate kiss with wife Tipper on the podium before his speech suggested a better blood flow than many might have attributed to the vice president.

But Gore is a realist about himself and he has a strong belief that the presidency requires more than a ready grin and a wink.

"If you entrust me with the presidency, I know I won't always be the most exciting politician," Gore said Thursday night. "But I pledge to you tonight I will work for you every day and I will never let you down."

Will it sell?

Performance over personality is a smart angle. But between now and November, Gore is going to have to find ways to demonstrate that he can be passionate about leadership, not just about policies.

* * *

After the Republican National Convention, Times Political Editor Tim Nickens offered four keys to how George W. Bush could win the presidency. It is available in the archives on our Web site at http://www.sptimes.com.

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