No one was home at the Belangers' this evening, so Vice President Gore scribbled a note on a red brochure and tucked it into their front door: "Sorry I missed you, Al Gore. P.S. I'd like your vote."
For at least a few moments, Al Gore was as far away from vice presidential seals and black limousines as his political team could get him, executing what they say is their new claw-back-into-contention strategy for the state that casts the first primary votes of 2000.
"We're trying to allow people to see him as a person rather than in the role of vice president," said Gore's New Hampshire press secretary, Doug Hattaway.
Shellshocked by Bill Bradley's steady climb in the polls here, Gore is racing to remake his image. "Let me get to the bottom line right away: I want your votes in the New Hampshire primary," he told about 200 people at an open forum here tonight. "I hope that you will use this opportunity to resolve any doubts that you have in your minds."
Before hosting his second open meeting at Fairgrounds Junior High School, Gore walked along Lynwood Street here, shaking hands. "The kind of campaigning he's doing now will make people realize he is a normal guy," said Jim Demers, a Concord lobbyist advising the Gore camp.
At several stops in recent days, voters have remarked with some surprise that Gore is now walking local streets and lingering at open meetings until the lights are turned off, and is far more accessible and personable than his stand-offish persona. "It's wonderful to meet somebody with character," Philip Forrest said after shaking Gore's hand today. "His upbringing and way of life is something the presidency needs."
The warning signs had been there for months, but it wasn't until Labor Day weekend that the grim reality hit the Gore campaign like a bucket of ice water. The vice president was losing New Hampshire, and badly. A state poll confirmed that Gore's risk-averse, "cookie cutter" formula was reinforcing all the negative stereotypes of being vice president and doing nothing to present an "authentic, real person voters could relate to," as one adviser put it.
Bradley, meanwhile, "was doing all the right things you need to do as an insurgent candidate in New Hampshire," said this Gore strategist. "He was meeting people in small groups, spending a lot of time there, had a good story to tell."
Two days after the poll was released, campaign chairman Tony Coelho called a meeting of his senior staff, grilling each on what could be done to rescue the New Hampshire effort. The result, say Gore advisers, is a statewide push that in both substance and style is better designed to help the vice president connect with voters. His motorcades are shorter, the staff is leaner and two new commercials portray Gore as a man who "fights for what he believes in," said Hattaway, who learned state politics working for Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.
Last weekend, Gore dispatched his wife, Tipper, to lead an aggressive door-to-door canvass for votes and he recently empowered strategist Michael Whouley to rewrite the New Hampshire blueprint. Whouley has tapped some of the state's best political minds, including Joe Keefe, Shaheen and her chief of staff Rich Sigel.
At the heart of the new strategy are the open meetings.
For 2 1/2 hours tonight in the school auditorium, Gore spoke at length about gun control, health care reform, campaign finance laws, foreign policy and his general election plans.
"If I am the Democratic nominee, the first thing I will do is propose to whoever is the Republican nominee that we have a debate every single week," he said.
At times joking, at times choked with emotion, Gore worked hard to find common ground with his questioners. To high school students he spoke of the terms "diss" and "clique" and to a blind woman he recounted the story of his blind Aunt Thelma.
At last week's session on the Seacoast, Gore heard from a man concerned about UFOs, listened to several complaints about health care in America and responded to a woman disgusted by President Clinton's sexual misdeeds.
"I want to take my own values of faith and family to the presidency," Gore told Laurrie Melizia last week, echoing a line from his June announcement speech. "I understand the disappointment that you feel and I felt it myself." Gore told the 42-year-old administrative assistant about his marriage of 29 years, his four children and his first grandchild, "born on the 4th of July." Then, he added: "Faith and family are at the center of my priorities. . . . I don't wear it on my sleeve but I want you to know who I am."
The wonky vice president with the clunky vocabulary still appears. Asked about the future of computers, Gore began describing the "I-T squared initiative." At a meeting sponsored by AARP here last Friday, Gore corrected a man who said the country's population had hit 260 million. "It's 270 million now," he said.
But increasingly, Gore is shedding some of the reserve and seeming pompousness that has distanced him from voters. When a Dover woman teared up last describing the recent cancer death of her sister, Gore reached out and rubbed her arm, saying: "I still get emotional talking about my sister," Nancy, who died of lung cancer.
Here in Nashua today, Tom Mulligan, 48, said Gore was "the first [candidate] to come to my house and tell me what he's all about." After discussing health care and education, Iris Mulligan sent the vice president out into the brisk dusk: "That's one down; now you've got a million or so more to go."
CAPTION: Vice President Gore greets citizens in Nashua during trip to New Hampshire, where his campaign has adopted a leaner look and a more personal approach.