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Down the stretch he comes: the real Gore

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


PORTLAND, Ore. -- With six days left in one of the closest presidential campaigns in history, Vice President Al Gore says he has shed his image as a wooden surrogate of President Clinton and has become his own man.

The strongest proof of his success can be found in Florida, a Republican-leaning state where some polls show he has built a surprising lead over Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Gore will campaign in Orlando and Tampa today in an effort to seize the state's 25 electoral votes, the biggest prize still up for grabs.

"I'm running on my own," Gore said Tuesday in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "This is a new agenda for a new day. I want people to see me for who I am."

As he faces an election so close that he might not win his home state of Tennessee, Gore says he is energized. He is campaigning around the clock, taking advantage of time-zone changes and red-eye flights to squeeze extra campaign events into each day.

"I'm feeling a surge of momentum," he said Tuesday.

Despite the long days -- he slept only four hours Monday night -- he is lively on the campaign trail: shouting, taunting and pleading with the crowd.

"Are you with me?" he hollers in every speech, like a coach trailing by a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Gore said Florida is the key to winning the election. Recent polls show him up by as much as 11 points in the state, although a Los Angeles Times Poll in Florida showed Bush with a 4-point lead.

The vice president said he was doing well because Floridians are "focusing on my economic plan."

Gore said he has been able to break away from his wooden reputation at three key moments this year: during the primaries, when he was challenged by former Sen. Bill Bradley; at his speech at the Democratic National Convention; and this week, the final stretch of the campaign.

At each of those three points, Gore had his back to the wall and there were doubts about whether he would survive.

Is this a different Gore?

For eight years, he played the loyal second banana. He attended funerals of foreign leaders and crusaded for bureaucrats to write in plain English. Eight years in Clinton's shadow made him seem one-dimensional: faithful but dull, a wooden soldier.

Then, at the Democratic convention in August, he declared his independence. He said he might lack pizazz, but he would fight for working people.

Critics weren't satisfied. They said he changed personas as often as he changed his clothes. There was Business Suit Gore, Earth Tones Gore and now, Shirt-sleeves Gore.

There still are many times when he seems scripted. In the interview, many answers were rote sound bites. Personal questions were batted away.

He even seems scripted when he removes his coat at the start of campaign rallies. He peels off the jacket and says, "I know it's a little chilly here, but I feel hot!"

That may seem normal on a warm afternoon in Florida, but it looks awkward on a cold day in Michigan.

His supporters say he has been the same guy all along. They say that, under a media microscope that counts the seconds that Gore kisses his wife, we've witnessed not a character flip-flop, but the many sides of a complex person.

His wife, Tipper, with an ever-present Nikon camera around her neck, plays a big role in humanizing Gore, reminding the crowds that her husband has flown back to Washington every week so he can see his son's high school football games.

"Any man that puts his family first is going to put your family first," she told a rally in Michigan on Sunday.

In the interview, Gore also said:

The "tone" in a Gore administration would emphasize bipartisan cooperation. "But I want to be clear. I do not believe in going along to get along if it's a special interest agenda that hurts the American people. If somebody wants a president who smiles and looks the other way as special interests loot the surplus, then I am not that person."

He had not talked with Tipper Gore about what they would do if he lost. "I believe we are going to win," he said.

Bush's plan to privatize a portion of Social Security was "extraordinarily reckless."

Gore seemed at the top of his game on Tuesday when he spoke to supporters at a community college outside Portland. With a combination of humor and statistics, he attacked Bush's tax plan as a handout for the rich.

"You don't have to take my word for it," Gore said with a slight smile. "Sen. John McCain said it best when he raised concerns about the governor's plan during the primaries: "I don't think Bill Gates needs a tax cut -- but I think you and your parents do.' "

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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