SHREVEPORT, LA. -- "What party is that guy in?" That was the question the postman asked the janitor at Shreveport's airport moments after Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) spoke there last week on a day that was, by the young senator's peculiar calendar, Day One of the presidential primary season.
The two blue-collar workers had been caught in the middle of the audience and seemed to listen to Gore's 15-minute stump speech criticizing one Democratic candidate as weak on defense, another one as the creation of his television advisers and a third as lacking enough government experience to serve as president. But when the postman's query came at him, the janitor held both his hands out, smiled, shrugged and said: "Beats the heck out of me."
From the airport, Gore ventured out to an AT&T plant in Shreveport where telephone products are made for export to Asia. This was supposed to be a perfect media event, where Gore could visually attack the protectionist campaign of Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, whom he views as his main competition for the votes of southern moderates.
On the plant's assembly line, Gore approached a woman worker with what he must have assumed would be the telling question.
"And do you know where these are going?" he asked her, pointing to the telephone products.
"Yeah," came the reply. "Down to the other end of the line."
There were several small moments of that sort during Al Gore's big week, the week when he was lying in wait for the rest of the Democratic field to come down to what he considers his home turf, the southern states holding primaries on "Super Tuesday." While Gore's coming-out party was by no means a washout, it did reveal that he will need far more than bravado, money and endorsements to emerge, as he has promised, as "one of the two leaders" after March 8.
His first challenge is to develop a public persona, and on that score last week he was a qualified success. The television spots that he ran on cable networks and in southern states were rated by neutral analysts as among the most boring and uninspired of the year, a judgment accepted by some of Gore's advisers. They showed him in canned settings with words such as "stronger" and "smarter" describing him.
His free television coverage included the debate in Dallas Thursday night, where he went into an attack-dog mode against Gephardt and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, dominating much of the show and the stories that followed it. A poll by the Dallas Morning News showed that the winner of the debate was the other "southerner" in the race, Jesse L. Jackson, and that Gore was received about as well as Gary Hart, though better than Gephardt and Dukakis.
But the most publicity Gore got last week was on the funny pages, where he was portrayed as "Prince Albert" in the political cartoon "Doonesbury." While Gore was trying to make the front page by attacking Gephardt's election-year "flip-flops" on many issues, his own facility at appearing to be different things to different people was played out in the comic strip. The earnest, Washington-bred Harvard grad was shown to be "bilingual," wearing a Jack Daniels cap and asking a down-home audience: "Y'all wanna hear mah coon dawg call?"
Gore does not see any parallels between Gephardt's election-year transformation and his own. He is, however, able to joke about his efforts to make himself a son of the entire South. In Texas, Gore always tells his audiences that his mother, as a young lawyer, hung out her shingle in Texarkana. Privately, with a high-pitched giggle, he acknowledges that he has figuratively moved her office a few miles from the Arkansas side of that border city.
That is about as funny as Gore gets. Although, of course, there is no requirement that presidential candidates refine their acts at comedy clubs, there is still a need for them to connect with their audiences on some level. During his first week of campaigning for what he calls "the main event," it was unclear that Gore was connecting with individual voters.
His first event -- a breakfast speech via satellite to audiences in Houston and 50 other Super Tuesday sites -- was revealing in that respect. His "live" audience in a Houston television studio consisted of about 28 local supporters. Gore shook hands with them before the show, then never looked at them again, delivering his speech to the camera. For a candidate who has boasted that by the end of the campaign he will be as stirring a speaker as Jackson, he has a long way to go.
But to get back to the postman's question: "What party is that guy in?" He is a Democrat, of course, and based on his Senate voting record, far more liberal than his southern campaign suggests. But, beyond strategy, what is his message? Last week his central message was that he is the toughest kid on the block. He implied that the other candidates had been transmogrified into weaklings by competing in Iowa.
"They took positions that are wildly out of touch with what mainstream Democratic voters believe," he said during an interview between campaign stops, blowing his nose and chugging down vitamin C pills to stem a cold. "That's not exaggerated political rhetoric, that is absolutely the case. The very idea of having a complete ban on all flight-testing of missiles when we rely on deterrence for the survival of our civilization . . . . "
Does that mean all mainstream Democrats are against a flight-test ban? he was asked.
"Ninety-nine percent of the . . . well, I think they are."