Vice President Al Gore, scrutinized in the early days of his presidential bid for a perceived lack of pluck and pizzazz, found a sympathetic audience last night as he spoke to the graduating class of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

"For many of you, I was probably not your first choice," Gore said, noting a survey indicating that area students favored figures such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Love Hewitt as commencement speakers. "And I'm a guy who thinks Dawson's Creek is a stream in West Virginia, which it is, by the way."

Gore's self-effacement went over well with the graduates, many of whom said the recent clamor over his lack of poise and polish was a colossal waste of time.

"He gets the geek label, but so do we," said Greg Harrell-Edge, 18, of Vienna. "And he can't dance worth a darn, that's for sure, but I'd like to see Steve Forbes or Lamar Alexander try the Macarena, too."

As a matter of fact, Gore's bore factor was endearing to many of the 400 graduates, who said they also get labeled as stiff, techno types.

"He's always stumbling around, sure, but he's a genuine stumbler," said Zoe Epstein, 18, of Alexandria, who this fall will attend Harvard University, Gore's alma mater. "We don't like overly slick around here. I think if Al Gore were too suave, we'd all be too wary of him."

Although most of the students sympathized with Gore's image issues, there was one thing they didn't want to hear on their graduation night: politics.

To that end, they organized a game of what they called "buzzword bingo." As Gore used catch words such as "millennium," "emerging," "election" or "vote," students would mark off squares on their game cards.

Vowing to set politics aside, Gore encouraged students at the Fairfax County magnet school to be particularly thankful for lasting friendships and family.

"Judge your success not by the number of computer network connections you make but by the number of people you connect with," he said, making special note of Bart Day, a high school chum and father of one of the graduates, who invited him to speak.

Still, although Gore was loose and his emphasis was personal, he couldn't resist injecting a little stumping.

The environment. Check. Family values, education, the space program. Check, check, check. He spoke only briefly about specific programs, such as the Human Genome Project and planned NASA space travel, before wishing the students well and giving several on-stage hugs and kisses as he quickly departed.

"He seemed pretty natural and normal, and after all, it's not just the charmers in the world who come out on top," said Bob Sadacca, father of graduate Mary Sadacca, of Fairfax.

CAPTION: Vice President Al Gore receives a sweat shirt from students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.