Were it not for the black cowboy boots and the Palm Pilot strapped to his belt, the man doing the talking could have been Bill Bradley.

"We face, above all of the issues that are on the agenda, a challenge that is fundamentally a spiritual challenge," the candidate said. "Are we prepared to feel the spirit of America as intensely as those who fought to create this magnificent experiment in freedom and self-government?"

Vice President Gore has repeatedly ridiculed his rival as the out-of-touch, liberal professor in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. "Scrapper versus scholar," as Gore spokesman Chris Lehane gleefully puts it.

But as Gore's entourage rolled this week from the University of Iowa to a union hall in Waterloo to Jon Roarson's corn farm here outside Sioux City, it was Gore who often sounded like the Political Ponderer of Campaign 2000.

Gone--for now at least--is his obsession with mainstream worries such as the traffic congestion of urban sprawl. Instead, the Al Gore hunting for votes here wants to talk about universal health care, racial unity, "progressive causes" and the poisonous money coursing through the body politic.

As he literally counts down the minutes to the caucuses here--12 days, 22 hours and 15 minutes, the vice president told one group--Gore is cognizant of the fact that the men and women willing to brave the cold on caucus night tend to be older, more liberal party regulars who worry about crop prices, Social Security and union protections.

"It is in fact intolerable in the midst of unprecedented prosperity that we have so many Americans who do not have health insurance," he moaned to a group of health care workers in Iowa City, coming within a rhetorical hair of Bradley's "If not now, when?" mantra on universal health care.

Using language as gauzy as any Bradley turn of phrase, Gore has been musing aloud about this "transcendent moment in history" and the "noble thoughts that gave birth to America." Like Bradley, he speaks of unlocking the "untapped potential" of America and the presidency.

The man best known for his importune "no controlling legal authority" defense of his aggressive fund-raising calls in 1996 now roars with passion about the corrupting influence of money in politics.

"I honestly believe we have an opportunity as Americans to focus the collective outrage that Americans feel about what has become of our political system and the campaign finance system," he said to rousing applause. "We do not have to accept this insipid approach to having these little meaningless, poll-tested, fuzzy, clever, ultimately destructive messages that demean our democracy."

Although Gore did promote campaign finance reform in Congress, it is Bradley and GOP Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) who have most aggressively pushed the issue in the presidential contest. The two staged a joint appearance in New Hampshire last month vowing that if they won their respective nominations they would reject all unregulated "soft money" from the political parties. That didn't stop Gore from announcing in an Iowa debate last weekend that if he and McCain are the nominees, they will turn down the party contributions.

"Incidentally, I strongly support campaign finance reform," Gore said in Waterloo. "I have for 20 years. I have tried to provide leadership on this since the beginning of my career."

From the start, Bradley has identified racial harmony as a central theme, closing most speeches with his call for a "world of possibilities guided by goodness."

Gore, who has not given a major address on race, nevertheless, declared recently: "One of the principle challenges in this time of choosing is the challenge of deciding together that we are once again going to be a brave people in pushing back the boundaries of [the] circle of human dignity until it includes all people."

But it has not just been the rhetoric and themes of his Democratic rival that have been apparent this week--for good measure, Gore appropriated Gov. George W. Bush's slogan and book title, "A Fresh Start," in a throaty appeal to union workers in Waterloo.

"America is about fresh starts and we need a fresh start," he said.