For Gore, a More Polished Stump Speech
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 1999; Page A5
MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa It is that rare moment in politics when everything seems to come together and life on the campaign trail seems suddenly bearable -- even, as this town's name suggests, pleasant.
Sunday evening, with a light breeze pushing out the day's humidity, Al Gore basked in one such moment.
"This is the heart of America," he said, looking down at the picture-perfect crowd gathered on the lawn. "A small town, a front yard, people gathered under the shade trees."
It has been a cruel spring for Gore and his presidential quest. He trails two Republicans in the polls, Democratic insiders snipe about his troubled political team, and last week President Clinton offered a painfully public assessment that his junior partner's campaign got off to a balky start.
Yet for all the palace intrigue back in Washington, the vice president faces a far more fundamental challenge: telling his story to the American people.
The stump speech debuted in March, but Gore has been unable to find a groove. Gore's early attempts were either clumsy (I created the Internet, he said in one interview) or partial truths (I grew up slopping hogs on the farm, claimed this prep school alum.). Sometimes he is disjointed. At other times, he reverts to a dry recitation of administration accomplishments. And aides have banned his stiff VP jokes; apparently they ring a little too true.
But Sunday, on the front porch of Gov. Tom Vilsack in this hamlet south of Des Moines, the pieces seemed to fall in place.
"I grew up in two places; the first was Washington, D.C., where my father was in the Congress," Gore said, with a nod to the less romantic side of his upbringing that critics say he tries to hide. "But I spent all my summers in a small town like this one, maybe a bit smaller."
Telling one's story seems so basic, but in the race for the presidency it is a key test of honesty, relevance and most of all, marketing. The right story line can make an unknown governor from Arkansas the empathetic Man from Hope and turn a promising young Indiana senator into a gaffe-prone vice president who can't spell potato.
That is why the Gore team has been busy making a biographical video and why he has spent the last few months refining his introductory pitch to voters.
"The values I learned in Carthage, Tennessee, are pretty much identical to the ones you learned here in Mount Pleasant," he said, with just a slight twang. "It's a place where your word is your bond and neighbors help neighbors."
Gore hit each mark: Married the high school sweetheart, then off to Vietnam, he began. Four kids, a grandchild on the way and a 29th wedding anniversary this week. A baby cooed, the man in the scoutmaster's uniform nodded, applause, applause.
In the early days, the Gores lived in a trailer park, "lot number 10," he said, hand on hip. "We were very, very lucky because our trailer had a six-foot extension off the living room and that made all the difference."
Divinity school, law school, the police beat on the local paper, a farm in Tennessee. Then onto the House, Gore said, and the Senate. "I represented a farming district," he said. "I was then and always have been pro-labor. . . . You need to know that about me."
His agenda still in its infancy, Gore has started taking credit for the strong economy, but with a nod to "those left behind." There's a plug for the health care bill of rights and improved race relations. "We have to reconnect the American spirit to the body politic," he said, winding up in 17 minutes. "The election of the year 2000 will decide what direction we take at the beginning of this new era."
And as he walked into the crowd, a white-haired group called the "Rhythm Rockers" serenaded him, slightly off-key, with "Chattanooga Choo-Choo." Then the ever-stiff Gore shimmied ever so slightly.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company