As the Learjet moved down the Ardmore, Okla., runway, a chilling howl rose from the back seat and continued to dip and rise. The startled pilot looked around, then shook his head and turned back to the business of getting airborne. It was nothing serious; just the junior senator from Tennessee, Albert Gore Jr., doing a perfect imitation of a hound dog treeing a raccoon.

You have to learn to interpret the yelps, explains Gore. "They say different things -- 'This is getting exciting, boss, because we're getting close,' and then they say, 'We have run this raccoon up this tree and we are beside ourselves.' "

Gore laughs, enjoying his coon-hunting monologue. "Then they say, 'We are so thrilled and if you will come here we will show you exactly which tree.' Or they say, 'The damn thing has run into a hole and we can't get it out.'

"The trick," says Gore, "is to know what they're saying."

He was, however unwittingly, also providing a metaphor for the way candidates package themselves for a presidential campaign.

For the press corps, often held hostage to slick TV commercials and rehearsed ad-libs, the game becomes a search for reality, an effort to uncover anything in the candidates that resembles human spontaneity. Meanwhile, runners, fearing political death in even a hapless off-the-cuff crack, seldom dole out candor. Instead, they offer substitutes -- Cremora campaigns -- in which even personal anecdotes seem calculated.

But it gets more complex. If a candidate starts garnering adjectives like "cool" and "distant" or "technocrat," the human touch is needed. Sometimes it is just more packaging, but sometimes it is a real glimpse at the relaxed side of the candidate. Often, it is a bit of both.

Which explains why Albert Gore, a political princeling who would be president, a man generally described as very bright and decent but stuffy, careful and calculating, was baying as his Learjet took off into the purple afternoon shadows.

Far from the madding Iowa caucuses, where his six rivals jostle for a win (or a place or show) next Monday, Gore is pursuing the presidency his own way. Gambling all on the outcome of Super Tuesday -- the second Tuesday in March, when 40 percent of the delegates are picked, two-thirds of them from the South -- Gore has determinedly tried to set himself apart and unabashedly exploit his Southern roots.

What strikes you after witnessing Gore move through crowds -- from mink-coated women at a Mobile, Ala., fundraiser to poor Mexican Americans in a Rio Grande high school, from farmers and railroad workers in Rock Springs, Wyo., to AFL-CIO members in Austin -- is the contrast between the public and private Gore, a contrast that makes his friends and family sigh. ("If I am near him when he's going on TV I say, 'Relax and smile,' " says his mother Pauline Gore.)

There is an automaton politeness in Gore's handshake, a studied sameness to the way he locks eyes with the person to whom he's talking, his expression sometimes softened by a genuine smile.

Gore's speeches are often vague calls to rally around politics -- and him. While calling himself the conservative in the pack, Gore speaks like a prairie populist when he excoriates Ronald Reagan's domestic record. His delivery has improved but now, like Ted Kennedy in 1980, Gore relies on a shouting cadence that works in large audiences but is stungun excess in small rooms. ("Mommy, why is that man shouting?" asked Ben, a 13-year-old, in a Holiday Inn meeting room in Ardmore.)

The audience is generally impressed rather than stirred. At 39, the youngest in the race, Gore usually gets a laugh with his arch remark that now is their chance to repeat history by replacing the nation's oldest president with its youngest, as happened in 1960.

But there is little of John F. Kennedy's self-deprecating wit in Gore. His wife Tipper feels there is overemphasis on whether candidates commit the cardinal sin of being boring. "These are politicians talking about important issues, not 'Saturday Night Live,' " she says. "It's {Reagan's presidency} been a joke for seven years now, it's time to get serious."

In his speeches, the former Harvard English student provides few uplifting quotes from poets or the classics; his standard line is from a general -- Omar Bradley ("It is time we steered by the stars and not by the lights of each passing ship"). But his verbal skills shine in the debates, which could be crucial as the field narrows and the public begins to pay attention. Last Saturday, Gore left Sioux Falls, S.D., with newspapers claiming him the winner in the previous night's encounter.

Privately, Gore is capable of vivid imagery seldom heard on the campaign trail. Praising the intelligence of his other Democratic opponents, Gore cracked, 'Gary found that out when he got back in the race. It was like {us} doing Nautilus for six months and {him} being a couch potato and coming back and trying to arm-wrestle."

High over a bank of cotton clouds, Gore takes off the coat of his neat blue suit, loosens his (always) red tie, stretches out totally relaxed as he wolfs down a white-bread ham sandwich and sparkling water. When he dismisses Hart, a glimmer of fierce competitiveness shows in his gray eyes.

Perfect Confidence Gore is a man who has never had a failure in public life and can think of none in his private life. He has a long straight nose and scrubbed good looks and one suspects he enjoyed a zit-free adolescence. His slightly crooked teeth are, in fact, almost a relief in all that straightness. He got the pretty blond (Tipper) at 17, married her after he was graduated from Harvard cum laude. No Nixonian benchwarmer, Gore was captain of the football team and played basketball at St. Albans.

Some politicians seek adulation to compensate for self-doubt, but Gore, born into politics as the son of former Tennessee senator Albert Gore Sr., seems motivated by nearly audacious self-confidence. Asked whom he would rather run against, George Bush or Bob Dole, Gore says, "I think I could beat either one of them. Hands down." He is running "because I think I have a contribution to make that no one else in this race can make. The key is in changing the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. I think I understand the challenge with crystal clarity."

The candidate with the elite education and political heritage, who calls upon old warhorses like Clark Clifford and young brains like Thurgood Marshall Jr., yet bills himself as "the only farmer in this race," seems long on hubris as he casts himself the one to negotiate with the Soviets:

"I think I know exactly what needs to be done and how to go about it. I've dealt with every policy-maker in the Soviet Union. A key factor in my decision to run was the belief that this opportunity may be perishable and this may be a very limited window of opportunity. The contribution I have to give to my country can best be made now. Yes, I'm confident."

Some of Gore's critics, however, are less enthusiastic. Gore charted a deliberate course in becoming an arms-control expert, studying the subject at least eight hours a week for a year, pushing hard for appointment to the House Intelligence Committee.

In 1983, Gore helped work out a compromise with the Reagan administration that assured deployment of a limited number of MX missiles in exchange for development of the single-warhead Midgetman and new approaches toward arms control.

However, Reagan has since done nothing about Midgetman and critics of Gore are still saying he was "gullible in the extreme" and motivated by self-promotion. Said one experienced arms controller on the Hill, "No question he knows a lot of minutiae on arms control, but in terms of understanding what it all means, Gore is awfully weak."

Gore argues that "The new approach to arms control, which we insisted upon, has now led to a significant treaty" -- the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement Reagan and Gorbachev signed in December.

Among the seven Democratic candidates, Gore alone opposes a ban on missile flight tests, one of the latest aims of the peace movement. The argument in favor is that it would preserve deterrence by halting the advance of many first-strike missile technologies. Proponents accuse Gore of opposing it simply to position himself to the right of others.

Argues Gore, "The theory behind the test ban is a little cockeyed -- 'If both sides begin to lose their confidence in how well their weapons will work then they'll be less likely to use them.' The principal purpose for flight testing is to maintain the reliability of your deterrent forces."

Asked why the others were for it, Gore retaliates: "I do know that last summer a little {peace} group in Iowa gave each campaign a two-hour deadline to be in favor of the flight test ban." Pause. "Now it may be coincidence that all the others announced their support the same day."

Escape From Iowa In three days last week Gore crisscrossed 5,700 miles in the campaign jet -- from the scrub pines of Alabama to the Big Bend country of southwest Texas to the snowy peaks of Wyoming to the Badlands of South Dakota to the hills of Richmond.

This week he is being trailed by three dozen reporters, intrigued by his well-promoted "Escape From Iowa" winter tour to Georgia and Florida. His Southern strategy, which ignores not only Iowa but also New Hampshire, is a risky crapshoot. But Gore was trailing in Iowa polls before he pulled out last November, and hardly had a choice.

Now, he rails against the prominence given to the Iowa caucus as a point of principle: "Do you think that the great state of {he fills in the blank here} has to wait until the small state of Iowa -- until 3 percent of the small state of Iowa -- tells you how to vote?" To the AFL-CIO in Austin, Gore shouted, "Is that the way Texas makes up its mind?" "Noooooo," bellowed the audience.

During the Sioux Falls debate, Gore was twitted by Bruce Babbitt for setting up camp in Iowa, then ducking out after reading the polls. On the plane, he said, "When I started I didn't realize that 97 percent of the people don't participate. It's bizarre."

Fine. But would he compete in Iowa if he had a chance of winning? Gore arches his brow in mock indignation and says, "I would have rejected it on principle!"

He seems unconcerned that his campaign will be buried, at least temporarily, in an avalanche of press coverage garnered by winners in Iowa and New Hampshire. Gore shrugs and says the pundits and pols are fighting yesterday's battles, that Super Tuesday has changed everything. (The campaign staff also shrugs off the latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, which puts Gore in third place at 18 percent.)

Gore is counting on scoring high in debates with the survivors, and his ads, filmed last week in Carthage, Tenn., for down-home flavor, will blitz the air.

He leans his head back as the jet glides on and predicts he will do well on Super Tuesday -- "I'm just very confident on how that's going to turn out."

A Tennessee Dynasty Al Gore Sr., 80, knocks back a glass of red wine and orders another. He is in a hotel lounge off Florida's I-95 in "condo-land," as he refers to that South Florida strip between Miami and Palm Beach where the elderly, predominantly Jewish, mostly for Michael Dukakis, have come to roost.

Ruddy-faced, bald on top, with snow-white hair touching the collar of his brown-striped suit, Gore looks like the prosperous businessman he is. And he talks like the liberal, outspoken politician he was for 32 years.

Loyal Tennesseeans still refer to him as "senior senator," despite a stinging defeat to Bill Brock in 1970 when Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew targeted him, hammering at his progressive civil rights record, his vote against Supreme Court nominees Haynsworth and Carswell and his dovish stance on the Vietnam war. The family was seared by the campaign.

Gore Jr. jogs five miles every dawn, and Gore Sr. runs a mile each day to stay in shape as he stumps for his son in the fourth-largest state in the Union. Gore Sr. says, "I've got my work cut out for me in condo-land."

Gore Sr.'s career shaped his son's knowledge of how the game is played, and as a father he was a stern disciplinarian -- "a little too stern," he concedes. Not content that his son merely "do his part" on their cattle and tobacco farm, Gore made Al Jr. "take the roughest end." Summers meant long hours of hosing down the pungent pig parlor, pitching manure, working the tobacco fields.

Nestled in the granite hills by the Caney Fork river, 60 miles from Nashville, tiny Carthage is Gore-owned. The senior Gore owns the major co-op and feed store and the Gores' adjoining farms dominate one hill. The "senior senator" says, "I didn't really make substantial sums of money until I was 'turned to pasture' and then I decided to graze in the tall grass." The Gore farms produce timber, prize-winning Black Angus and royalties from mineral deposits on the land.

Sensitive to elitist charges, the family emphasizes Gore Jr.'s summers in Tennessee. But Gore as a child also saw politics in a demystifying light. He listened to Cabinet secretaries at dinner, roamed the Senate halls, made paper airplanes while attending Senate debates, listened in on an unexpurgated phone conversation between his father and President Kennedy and once sat on Vice President Nixon's lap when he presided over the Senate. One day Strom Thurmond stepped on his toy submarine in the Senate swimming pool.

In Al Jr.'s Arlington home is a framed old newspaper article about Gore headlined "Born to Run." Some critics think Gore has always thought of himself as "born to rule."

A cousin, Deborah Gore Dean, an assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has expressed a dominant opinion about Gore: "Everything he's done has been deliberate and designed to take his life where he wanted it to be."

Gore insists he was so turned off from politics after his father's defeat, the Vietnam war and Watergate that he planned to make a career as a writer. But even among some who worked with him in 1971 at the Nashville Tennesseean, the view persists that he was merely "passing through." One former colleague says, "The Tennessean practiced 'celebrity nepotism,' but Al was the only one of the lot good enough to have gotten the job without his father." He adds, "Al is so calculating, I wouldn't even put it past him to have weighed the political benefits in knowing the newspaper business from the inside. He sure knows how to package himself for the press."

Senate colleagues have accused Gore of holding grandstanding press conferences and championing causes that produce headlines but little controversy. "The example that they use as 'Exhibit A' of selecting safe issues is the organ transplant law," Gore responds, "but when I started working on that no one else would touch it with a ten-foot pole. It was an ethical mine field."

While Gore says there was little difficulty growing up as a senator's son, his father returns often to the theme of sons finding their own way: "I had to deal with this, uh, trauma of a son attaining his own identity. When Al called me and said he was going to run for Congress I was all set to roll up my sleeves and make some of my speeches and tell my hillbilly stories and help get my son elected to Congress, but he said, 'Hold on, Dad, thank you but I must not be your candidate, I want it to be my own race and win my own battle.' It was sound political judgment but I sure was disappointed."

Even eight years later, in 1984, says the senior Gore with some disappointment, "He wanted me to remain out of his race for Senate."

But it was the father who planted the presidential seed on Christmas Day 1986, six months before Gore announced.

"Insofar as the presidential campaign, that was over," says the no-longer-banished Gore Sr. "He has won his spurs."

Vietnam Much has been written about Al Gore's six-month tour of duty in Vietnam. In a war that spared the privileged, Gore was one of the few Harvard graduates and one of the few senators' sons to serve.

In part, he felt an obligation to go into the war he detested so that his father's position would not be compromised. Gore Sr.'s campaign featured a patriotic commercial in which he told his son, now in uniform, "Son, always love your country." But Gore Sr. bristles at the suggestion that he pressured his son to serve: "I would not for the world advance that {his election} as a reason to enter. I told him we would support whatever decision he made."

Gore weighed all the options but never seriously considered Canada or any other dodge.

"However one might feel about it," says Gore's father, "his name was next on the draft list. Carthage is not like Manhattan. Next on the list were neighbors, cousins, friends. If he didn't take his turn, someone else would take the risk."

In a telephone interview Tipper angrily recalls a recent quote by a Republican strategist that they could go after Gore on his " 'preppy upbringing and soft job in Vietnam' and I thought, 'Hell, there were no soft jobs in Vietnam.' "

On the plane, Gore says, "People try to make something out of the fact that I was there for only six months. Well, {expletive}. That just infuriates me. I wanted to go." The whole family believes (but cannot prove) that his orders were delayed by the Nixon administration; a dead son would not help unseat Gore Sr.

"All I know," says Gore, "is I was not allowed to go until the first departure date after the November election."

Gore went as a reporter. "I say I was not in combat because a lot of people went through hell compared to what I went through, but I went to Khe Sanh before the first planes landed there when we took it back. I lived in a Special Forces camp in the Mekong Delta while we were building a road up the mountain controlled by the V.C. And I was shot at ... I spent most of my time in the field."

Like many who were in Vietnam, Gore does not speak about the destruction he witnessed, nor has he written about it. "I put it all in my letters to Tipper." While others in the campaign speak emotionally of the human costs of the war in Nicaragua, Gore pulls no such heartstrings.

"Well, I think that's just part of war and a legitimate part of the case against the contra war," he says. "I'll sometimes say the cost is so high, innocent people being killed ... I just think it's a bad policy all the way around."

Vietnam "certainly matured me in a hurry. It also gave me a tolerance for complexity that I don't think I had before. I didn't change my conclusions about the war being a terrible mistake, but it struck me that opponents to the war, including myself, really did not take into account the fact that there were an awful lot of South Vietnamese who desperately wanted to hang on to what they called freedom. Coming face to face with those sentiments expressed by people who did the laundry and ran the restaurants and worked in the fields was something I was naively unprepared for."

There are those who see the youthful candidate and his comfortable upbringing, a young man so sure of himself, and wonder if there is enough seasoning, enough depth to complement his intelligence. "It takes a world of pain," as Keats wrote in his letters, to turn an "Intelligence into a Soul."

The deepest pain in Gore's life was the death of his sister Nancy, who died of lung cancer in 1984. Although she was 10 years older, they were very close. "She took care of me a lot," Gore has said. His mother adds, "Nancy was more of a little mother."

Pauline Gore muses, "My children were so different. Nancy was a total nonconformist. Al always wanted to find out what you wanted him to do -- and then do it. He was a gentle little boy. Nancy wanted to find out what you wanted to do -- and then do the opposite."

After Nancy's death, Gore stopped growing tobacco and has pushed for strong warning labels on cigarettes. Her death was "the worst time of my life."

How did he get the strength to deal with it?

"Ohhhhhh," says Gore, sighing. "It's, uh." Long pause. He starts again and pauses. "Well, you know, it's just hard to put something like that into words." His voice goes flat as he looks out the airplane window. "It was just very, very difficult."

Pleasing the Crowds As Gore stumps through the South and Southwest, his accent seems to deepen slightly. "Any" becomes "inny," the g's are dropped and the "y'alls" are added. On podium after podium, he "brags on" a lot of people, a phrase one cannot imagine him using at Harvard.

He does not deny his record, but Gore nonetheless tailors his answers to the crowd. To conservatives, he warns that neo-isolationism is the wrong lesson to learn from Vietnam and makes a point of saying he is for humanitarian aid to the contras. In liberal arenas he emphasizes another lesson. "As a Vietnam veteran," Gore says, the outcome depends on "the attitude of the people in the country ... they are not giving their support to the contras."

To conservatives he speaks of the need for a strong defense; in debates he distances himself from the other candidates by championing the successful, if bungling, Grenada invasion and the reflagging of Kuwaiti ships in the Persian Gulf.

In front of the small schoolhouse in Cotulla, Tex., where Lyndon Johnson taught, Gore railed against the disparity between rural and urban educations and drew cynical gasps from national reporters when he said he knew about it firsthand because he'd attended schools in rural Tennessee and Washington, D.C.

Asked later when he went to school in Carthage, Gore says, "In elementary school, before the third grade. And I would start there for about three weeks before school opened in Washington." Gore says the difference was brought home when he received a letter from a close Carthage friend "who was every bit my equal in conversations but couldn't write, couldn't spell. I sat on my bed and read that letter and just cried and cried, realizing how his opportunities were so much more limited."

In a year of intense scrutiny of private lives, the Gores (with their four children) come off looking something like the Brady Bunch. Tipper, who has fought to get warning labels placed on record albums that contain explicit language, sighs about her Goody Two-shoes image. Gore says he is "very proud" of his wife and, when the press inquires, says she opposes censorship.

About revealing that they'd used marijuana, "It was either admit it or lie," says Tipper. "We would never lie."

Gore visibly recoils from candidates who wear their religion on their sleeve. "I don't talk about 'faith' on the stump. I never have and never will. But it's an extremely important part of my life." A year at divinity school while at The Tennesseean was "extremely valuable. Quite a contrast to the police beat at night and divinity school in the day."

Gore expounds on why he went: "I think a lot of people who have faith in this day and age try to find ways to reconcile their faith with what initially appear to be challenges to that faith ... The best known are Galileo, which displaced the Earth as the center of the universe; Darwin, which places us in the animal kingdom; Freud, which displaced consciousness as the sole process of thought; Einstein, which destroyed the concept of solidity and matter. And today the existence of massive starvation and prospect of nuclear holocaust side by side with the whole idea of progress and civilization makes one question where we are going.

"But the answer is within ourselves."

Into the Future In the long run, Gore really cannot lose, unless he stumbles very badly on Super Tuesday -- something he says, with characteristic confidence, "won't happen." Dukakis may get stronger; Jesse Jackson or Richard Gephardt or someone else may become the dominant Southern candidate. But Al Gore, who will turn 40 in March, can return to the Senate and wait.

As his plane approaches Richmond, a carpet of twinkling lights far below, he works almost casually on a speech he will deliver in a few minutes. Despite an aide's admonition to keep on track, Gore would rather talk about music of the '60s. "I really liked James Brown," he says. "I used to go down to the Howard Theatre to see him. And I like country music." Soon he is warbling, complete with falsetto, "On the wings of a snow white dove ..."

Then he shows off his Casio with its mini-calculator and telephone numbers and a secret compartment with the combination to the safe on the farm. ("You can get it at Sharper Image for $40.") The aide glares and Gore goes back to reading his speech, penciling in a few changes.

Finally he is asked about that high-school yearbook selection from Anatole France, next to a caricature of himself: "People who have no weaknesses are terrible." Gore laughs. "There is no accounting for high-school editors."

So what are his weaknesses? Gore pulls a mock long face; clearly he is not about to answer the question seriously. "I work too hard," he intones in a mock serious voice. "Don't take time to relax."

It seems that Gore cannot honestly come up with any weaknesses.

Which, may in fact, be his major one.