The question at a New Hampshire senior citizens center the other day was about health care, but next thing you know Vice President Gore was launched on a story about the film "Annie Hall" and a cameo appearance in that movie by media philosopher Marshall McLuhan.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), standing by Gore's side, tilted his head in a quizzical stare. At the side of the room, anxious aides to the candidate shot each other nervous looks as if to say: Where on earth is he going with this?

So where was Gore going? It's a bit complicated to explain here. But he eventually brought the anecdote back to his point: that his health care plan is superior to Democratic rival Bill Bradley's. Relieved aides breathed a sigh.

Sometimes they don't. Unlike Texas Gov. George W. Bush, for instance, Gore is never accused of winging facts or not understanding policy debates. But, in the tradition of candidates stretching from Ronald Reagan to Dan Quayle, whose aides were always braced for a blunder, Gore is forever flirting with the next faux pas.

His tangled answer at a debate last week about whether he would insist that senior commanders support his position on gays in the military was the lastest illustration of how the candidate--however markedly his style has relaxed and improved in recent months--is still grappling with a rhetorical problem.

Simply put, according to people who have advised his campaign or analyzed it, candidate Gore seems to have little intuitive sense of when enough is enough. And so he keeps talking even when it might be wiser to stop.

The results can be odd. Gore's answer to a question about his religious beliefs included a peculiar discussion of the respect to which atheists are entitled. An unexpected "town meeting" question about a sexual assault allegation against President Clinton prompted a stammering answer that went on excruciatingly, and to little clear purpose, for a couple of minutes. Campaign policy advisers learned that their candidate has staked out a new position on medical marijuana after the fact, when a traveling political aide interrupted a conference call to report on Gore's surprise utterance. There have been boasts--most famously, over his claim to have invented the Internet--that took laudable aspects of his record and stretched them a bit too far.

Last week's flap over his gays-in-the-military answer was also an illustration of how Gore gets in trouble by pressing his foot too heavily on the rhetorical gas. At a debate at the University of New Hampshire, moderator Peter Jennings of ABC News asked if Gore would apply a "litmus test" in his appointments to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seeking only people "who support your gay policy."

In presidential politics, litmus-test questions are themselves a litmus test: Candidates always say they do not apply them. Gore at first paid homage to this truism, noting that he has always opposed litmus tests for Supreme Court nominations. But then he plunged on--driven, according to sources close to the campaign, by a determination not to yield any ground to Bradley in the Democratic fight for the important gay vote.

"I think that it's a little different where the Joint Chiefs of Staff are concerned," he added. "And I think that would require those who wanted to serve on . . . the Joint Chiefs to be in agreement with that [my] policy. So, yes."

Gore's zeal to show he was serious on gay rights was matched by a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that he had articulated a damaging position--that such military leaders as Colin L. Powell or H. Norman Schwarzkopf would be ineligible for command in a Gore administration since they believe that allowing gays to serve openly hurts military effectiveness. After two days of internal deliberation, Democratic sources said, Gore grudgingly agreed to state that his original answer had been misinterpreted.

Gore advisers, as well as sympathizers with his campaign within the Clinton White House, say they are happy to pay an occasional penalty when the candidate goes off script. A few years ago, for instance, Gore's cleaving too closely to the script helped produce one of his least impressive performances--when he repeated seven times that he made fund-raising calls from the White House because there was "no controlling legal authority" to forbid it.

Since revamping his campaign and his public persona last fall, the quick-witted Gore familiar to White House aides is more often on public display, they say. At a news conference last week in the Portsmouth, N.H., senior center, Gore joshed MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews for what seemed like Matthews' self-promoting references to his show "Hardball." Why not, Gore suggested to Matthews, get one of those microphones with the name of the show emblazoned right on it? An appreciative Matthews told Gore he was "falling in love" with him. With split-second timing, Gore deadpanned, "It can happen."

But the loose New Gore can still without warning be elbowed off-stage by the creaky Old Gore. It happened last week in an appearance at a New Hampshire high school. At a roundtable, a student raised his hand and asked Gore if he has talked with his family about youth violence in the wake of recent school shootings. It was the kind of emotive moment at which, for better or worse, modern candidates are supposed to excel. Gore teed up his answer:

Yes, his family has discussed the problem. He then pivoted to say that, actually, statistics show schools are getting less violent. But, of course, incidents like the Columbine murder rightly sparked national horror. His gun control agenda, including photo licenses for handgun purchases, would help. Also, "there is a need for better parenting." His plans for an increase in the minimum wage, and expanded child care subsidies would help. In addition, he is concerned about "the incidence of violence in the media." Just to make clear, he does not "want anything that resembles censorship," and he recognizes that "Shakespeare used violence as a staple of the highest quality entertainment we've ever known." Finally, he said, drug abuse "plays a role," and put in a plug for his plan to help schools hire more teachers and counselors.

Six minutes later, Gore's answer was done. "Somebody else?" he asked. There was a long pause before another hand ventured up.

People who have worked closely with Gore, as campaign aides or within the Clinton White House, offer a variety of explanations for Gore's rhetorical style. An intelligent and well-informed man, he sometimes wants to make sure that everyone knows he is smart and well-informed. And, in the case of gays in the military, Gore's zeal to show he would go further than Clinton highlights a genuine difference: He is a more combative person, much less prone to tactical compromise than the man who has been his boss.

Robert Shrum, a media adviser for Gore, said what people are witnessing is a candidate who since last year has been liberated to be himself and is enjoying it. "I don't think you can engineer people," said Shrum. "He's not programmed. . . . I think he's gotten better and better."

Sometimes the quality of the performance is in the eye of the beholder. Gore campaign aides said they were delighted with his improved performance in the polls and by public response to Gore's offer last month, with an outstretched hand that Bradley refused to shake, to get rid of TV ads in favor of twice-weekly debates. A Washington Post focus group showed people liked the idea.

But Republican pollster Frank Luntz said he assembled 35 independent voters, nearly all of whom chafed at what they thought was the stagy way Gore sprang the idea on Bradley. Luntz said his audience believed that Gore leaves an impression that "even when he is off-the-cuff, he seems rehearsed."

Michael Nelson, a presidential scholar at Rhodes College in Memphis, said Gore has been grappling with the same problem for the 20 years he has been watching him: balancing a natural style that seems "lecturing and didactic," with the demands of modern campaigning to seem "chummy and enthusiastic." If the candidate stumbles, he said, "It's not what he's going to say, but how he's going to say it."