By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 27, 2000
TAMARAC, FL. -- Al Gore reached for the tape recorder, but I grabbed it first.
Tan, relaxed and hoarse from too many speeches, the vice president was amused by my question about how he had turned his reputation as a dull policy wonk into a positive.
How do you know it hasn't always been a positive? he asked.
Welllllllll. . ., I responded.
That's when the vice president started laughing. I handed him the tape recorder when he asked for it so he could listen to the exchange again. But the master of the Palm Pilot, who is often accused of overstating his role in creating the Internet, could not figure out how to rewind the recorder and wound up taping over part of the conversation.
The light-hearted moment during an interview with Florida reporters last week captured the new Al. After months of stumbles and countless profiles casting him as a cold, calculating politician, Gore appears to be on top of his game just when it's starting to count.
His selection of U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut re-energized his campaign and received good reviews, even as Lieberman renounced previous positions on tuition vouchers and Social Security privatization that had put him at odds with Gore.
His convention speech also has been well received, even as pundits have questioned its mixed messages, and its lack of rhetorical flourish.
His bounce in the public opinion polls has been better than many Democrats expected. After trailing throughout the year, most polls now show Gore in a statistical tie with Republican George W. Bush or even slightly ahead.
There's a long way to go between now and Nov. 7. But you can hear the difference in Gore's voice and see it in his face. He appears more at ease, and he seems to be hitting his stride.
It may be that Gore finally believes he has stepped out of President Clinton's shadow with his performance at the Democratic National Convention. It may be that it is a relief to finally have a partner in the battle against Bush, especially a partner who is as well grounded as Lieberman. Or it may be just finding a strategy that works.
For months, Gore lost the personality contest with the affable Texas governor. Now he is on a roll by doing what comes natural, talking issues and demanding specifics as Bush sketches out broader visions and promises to let the experts to work out the details.
Gore's approach made for an unconventional convention speech, but it appears to be working and voters like it.
"To the extent there has been a positive reaction to the convention, it has been in large part because of the gamble I took in focusing on specifics paid off," Gore told Florida reporters after talking to a friendly crowd of Jewish Democrats at the Kings Point retirement complex in western Broward County. "Because I hear people everywhere now saying I want to know the facts. Don't treat us like Madison Avenue treats the people whom they're trying to sell dog food to. Give us the facts. What are your priorities? How do you pay for it?"
As Gore gains momentum, Bush appears to have been knocked off-balance for the first time since John McCain knocked him around in the primaries.
Bush, who spoke about foreign trade Friday in Miami, acknowledged last week that he needs to better explain his proposed tax cuts of $1.3-trillion over 10 years. But he got tangled up in numbers as he tried to make the case on his campaign plane and respond to Gore's claims that the proposed cuts are too risky and could jeopardize economic prosperity.
In a rare moment of Republican discord, a Republican National Committee advertisement was pulled after Bush advisers concluded it was too negative and unfair to Gore, whose sound bite was outdated and out of context.
Meanwhile, Bush's claims in a speech before veterans in Milwaukee that the American military has been weakened by the Clinton administration have been criticized as inaccurate. His running mate, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, also is still under fire for his multi-million-dollar payment and stock options from the oil services company he led, Halliburton.
The candidate who stays on message at all costs has strayed. In the midst of a two-week tour that was supposed to focus on education, Bush was forced last week to try to prop up support for his tax cuts. In New Orleans and Miami, he trotted out families to use as props to make the case that the middle class would benefit from his proposal and not just the wealthy as Gore charges.
But that tactic was countered by Gore's campaign. It pointed out those same families also could benefit from some of the vice president's less expensive, targeted tax cuts.
"With all due respect to Gov. Bush," Lieberman said, "'the problem isn't explaining the tax plan, it's the tax plan itself."
For the first time, Bush is feeling a bit of pressure from Gore. How he responds now that his campaign can no longer glide along on cruise control will help determine how the race unfolds in the final 10 weeks.