Vice President Gore has toured plenty of schools over the years, but perhaps none provided as much satisfaction as his visit to the Ella Risk School here early this morning.
The headline at the top of the front page of the Providence Journal set the stage for a day in which one politician's misstep was another's opportunity. "Gore hopes to school Bush on truancy," the headline read.
On Wednesday, Texas Gov. George W. Bush was scheduled to visit the predominantly Hispanic elementary school, but when bad weather delayed his arrival in Rhode Island, he skipped a question-and-answer session with the students in favor of a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser in Providence.
The Gore campaign, better known for playing defense most of the year, quickly seized the offensive. Moving with uncharacteristic swiftness, the vice president's campaign wangled an invitation to meet with the students and hastily rearranged his schedule. Departing Andrews Air Force Base at about 6:20 a.m., Gore arrived at the school just before 8 a.m.
If the students realized they were bit players in a larger drama of the presidential campaign of 2000, they didn't show it--though they have been showered with attention. Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond, subbing for Bush, showed up Thursday to answer questions and Gore came today with an entourage of local Democratic politicians eager to participate in the campaign counterattack.
For Gore, it was a morning to forget about the challenge from Democratic rival Bill Bradley and seize the chance to aim directly at the GOP front-runner. The students gathered in the cafeteria in the newly constructed school and were armed with questions for the vice president, who shucked his suit coat because of the heat and wandered from child to child with a wireless microphone.
The questions ranged from what he would do on his first day as president (something about education) to what kind of car he has (a Mercury Sable). Does he have guards at his house, he was asked? "I do." Does he have a butler? "No," he said, but acknowledged there were a few Navy personnel around to make life easier at the vice presidential mansion.
Gore was happy to answer them all, though sometimes his answers were a version of his standard campaign speeches. But with a bank of television cameras in the back of the cafeteria, Gore took the opportunity to attack Bush's new education plan, which would tie federal funds for disadvantaged students to school performance and offer vouchers to parents of children in schools with persistently low test scores.
"Some people have said that if a school is falling behind, all the money ought to be taken away and the school should be shut down and the parents should be given a little bit of the money to hire tutors or to make a down payment on private schools," Gore said. "I think that would be a disaster."
At the Bush headquarters in Austin, spokeswoman Mindy Tucker was ready with a counter-counterattack. Gore's dire warnings about shuttered schools, she said, demonstrated that "he has low expectations for the public schools of America." She said Bush's plan "insures" that public schools will be forced to improve, but said Bush was most interested in helping the students.
"The priority here is not the system but the children," she said.
The Gore team was determined to press the anti-voucher case, which the vice president did later in the day in New Hampshire. Gore spokesman Chris Lehane had yet another rejoinder for the Bush team late in the day. "Apparently the governor has extended his support of vouchers to his own campaign," Lehane said. "He skips public schools and goes directly to a private fund-raiser."
Other Gore supporters charged that there is a gulf between Bush's effort to reach out to Hispanic voters and the policies of his party. "George Bush likes to come off as a friend of Latinos," said Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.). "His policies are bad for Latinos."
Gore also asked the students a few questions, such as why would it be better to have fewer students in a classroom. One boy said students would learn more that way. "Why?" the vice president asked. "Less trouble-making," the boy replied.
There were serious moments as well, particularly when Gore and the students talked about gun violence--a surprising number raised their hands when Gore asked if they had ever heard gunfire in their neighborhood--or how frightened some feel going home to an empty house after school.
The students seemed amazed when Gore spoke a few words of Spanish to emphasize the importance of learning. They oohed when he mentioned he has four children and applauded when he talked about his nine-week-old grandson. They wanted to know what he liked about school when he was a boy. "I loved to read books," he said, saying a favorite was "Mr. Popper's Penguins."
Gore got lots of questions about how and when he became President Clinton's No. 2. Asked whether he liked being vice president, he responded: "I do like it. It's fun. But I think being president would be even better."