In N.H., Gore's Warm-Up Act
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 1999; Page A1
MANCHESTER, N.H., March 27 – When Jim Craig walked over to his neighbor's house this afternoon to meet Vice President Gore, he was unsure of whom to support in the next presidential campaign. Former senator and basketball great Bill Bradley looked attractive to the 47-year-old attorney.
But after listening to a casually dressed, off-the-cuff Gore field questions for half an hour, Craig reached for a Gore 2000 pledge sheet and signed up. "People say he's boring; we might be ready for boring," Craig said. "It's not necessarily bad, even if he is."
With the impeachment saga behind him and the 2000 primary season starting unusually early, Gore is trying to make the shift from in-the-wings number two to someone voters look at as a president, someone they like. But getting out the Al Gore story has proven to be more difficult than anticipated.
The vice president's poll numbers continue to lag behind President Clinton's, and many voters, describing Gore as dull, say they might prefer the much-vaunted political skills of Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R). Gore's challenge, his staff says, is to emerge in his new role, presenting a persona that connects with voters.
But he has stumbled in his early steps on the campaign trail, hindered in part by his own words. He was ridiculed for claiming he invented the Internet, then for offering a Norman Rockwell-style account of his boyhood summers on a Tennessee farm.
This weekend the 50-year-old Democrat tried again, coming to New Hampshire to meet with people in their living rooms, reintroducing himself in a more three-dimensional manner than his widely known wooden caricature.
"He's not had much opportunity to meet and greet the ordinary New Hampshire voters," said state Rep. Martha Fuller Clark (D) of Portsmouth. "It will help to belie some of the images he might have that he's not warm, funny, personable. As soon as they get to meet the vice president in an intimate setting, that totally changes."
Although not unanimous, many who encountered Gore said they were pleasantly surprised by his warmth, command of the issues and willingness to put in the hours that New Hampshire voters have come to expect from candidates in the nation's first primary state.
For his part, Gore was at ease during a two-day campaign swing that took him from a bakery on the seacoast to a Grover Cleveland dinner in the rock-ribbed Republican North Country. He met high-tech workers in a refurbished mill, ate lunch at a hangout in the working-class neighborhood of Manchester's West Side, posed with three babies and shook no fewer than 400 hands.
"I didn't realize he had such a light touch," said Lib Bates, a retiree who invited Gore to return for an outing with the "Over the Hill Hikers of Sandwich."
With his trademark index cards nowhere in sight, Gore spoke about Kosovo, health care, Social Security, education, campaign finance reform and perhaps most important, himself.
"I know how to keep our prosperity going," he told about 75 people at the home of Daniel and Marcy Lyman. "I know how to tackle the most urgent challenges that we have and open up the opportunities that these young people deserve, so I ask for your votes in the New Hampshire primary."
After months of dodging all talk of his White House ambitions, Gore made direct appeals for votes. "I ask for your support. I would like to have your vote," he said at a similar living room chat earlier in the day in the upscale hill neighborhood of Concord. "I would like to have your active support in this campaign, and together we'll make this country what it should be in the 21st century."
Gore and his staff know he must show he is not another Walter F. Mondale or Robert J. Dole, both of whom came to New Hampshire with an air of inevitability – which didn't prevent them from being broadsided by Gary Hart and Patrick J. Buchanan, respectively.
"You can't really run up here on name recognition. House parties are traditional New Hampshire." said William Shaheen, Gore's New Hampshire chairman and husband of the state's Democratic governor.
Thanks in large measure to Bill Clinton, the first presidential campaign of the 21st century will require a hefty dose of performance art. Though he still has trouble spanning the emotional spectrum as convincingly as Clinton, Gore rolled out many other theatrical accoutrements today, from wardrobe (tan slacks and V-neck sweater), to scenery (neon-filled diner), to props (dubbed "real people" by political handlers).
Gore described today's events as a "very different dialogue" than the suit-and-podium addresses he is better known for: "That dialogue in this great state – the first in the nation – has more to do with what happens in electing our next president than anything else."
He also acknowledged the trouble he has opening up to strangers. "I think the older I get, the easier time I have expressing myself in public the way I do with my friends and in small groups," he said in a local television interview. "But I'm quite confident that there are some things about ourselves that are hard to change, and for me that's one of them."
A touch of Gore's humor slipped out at the end of a local TV interview Friday night when New England Cable News reporter Alison King asked the vice president to wish her father a happy 70th birthday.
Gore, a former newspaper reporter, seized the microphone and turned the tables on King, quizzing her on Jackson King's favorite food and party plans. Then mimicking a blow-dried, baritone anchorman, he closed: "Jackson, there you have it. Live from Carroll County, New Hampshire, a preview of your birthday."
But the more serious challenge for the vice president is to effectively market himself without relying on the sort of inflated claims that have opened him to ridicule since he ran for president in 1988. On Friday, boasting that he had attended 3,000 "town hall" meetings in his political career, Gore added: "I believe that's the all-time record."
The trip revealed other potential trouble spots for Gore. At several stops, Democrats peppered him with questions about his commitment to cleaning up the campaign finance system and his unstinting loyalty to Clinton throughout the Monica S. Lewinsky sex scandal.
"When he made a terrible personal mistake and it came out that he actually did, I condemned it, and I condemn it again today," Gore replied to the Lewinsky question. "It was indefensible, terribly wrong. He apologized for it and the American people made a judgment that they wanted to move on, and I think that judgment still holds today."
One uncommitted Democrat, Sally Hartshorne, said she was impressed by Gore's speech at Friday's dinner but fears he is tarnished by his association with the president. "Clinton has not brought a wonderful image to the White House and Gore has been very loyal," she said.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company