After months of repeated missteps and a series of painfully public staff shuffles, Vice President Gore has hit his stride just in time for the first contest of the political season in Iowa Monday night.
As the Republican front-runners bicker and his Democratic rival tries to revive his struggling campaign, Gore's poll numbers are climbing, the crowds have sprung to life and the congenitally unhip grandfather has taken to dancing as rock music fills school gyms from the Nebraska border to the banks of the Mississippi here.
And while the vice president is not running a picture-perfect campaign--he was recently forced to clarify his position on gays in the military--his foibles and performance woes have largely receded from the front pages.
"We haven't had the first caucus. We haven't had the first primary, much less the remaining competition for the nomination," Gore said in an interview today. "But there's no doubt that in relative terms, the whole campaign's doing a much better job of connecting with the American people."
Gore's fortunes have improved dramatically from six months ago, when President Clinton fretted publicly over his understudy's performance, the Gore campaign was hemorrhaging money and the vice president's aides seemed more focused on their own survival than that of their boss.
"It's a whole new campaign," said Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, a Gore backer who once worried that Gore's Democratic rival, Bill Bradley, posed a serious threat. "Al Gore's positioned right now to come out of Iowa very strong. We're at peak performance."
In interviews over the final weekend of campaigning here, the vice president, his top strategists and neutral observers say several key developments helped reposition Gore, including his decision to shake up his staff and move the campaign headquarters to Nashville on Oct. 6; his success at securing the endorsement of the powerful AFL-CIO six days later, and his shift to a more aggressive--Bradley's camp says unfair--approach to dealing with his Democratic rival.
Several analysts also said Bradley suffered during six head-to-head debates in which Gore's attacks on his health care plan and other issues largely went unanswered.
"Gore's campaign has adjusted," said Lee Miringoff, a New York pollster. "Bradley's campaign looks stuck in the existing game plan. In this rapid-movement climate, you have to be at least at pace if not ahead of the game."
And after months of sulking about "Clinton fatigue" and having every wardrobe change chronicled in the press, Gore has found a way to make his case.
"Gore [has] certainly found his voice," said David Axelrod, a neutral Democratic consultant based in Chicago. "The problem really wasn't white shirts, it was white papers when people wanted to see a pugnacious fighter for the things they care about."
Gore himself said today that while he would have obviously preferred to run unopposed for the nomination, the battle with Bradley "helped me dig deep and come up with a way of connecting with the American people."
Gore attributed the turning point in his campaign to a day last summer when "I made a shift in my priorities. . . . I made a decision that running for president is an awful lot more important than being the best vice president I can be."
It was also at this time that Gore made his decision to move his headquarters from from Washington's K Street to the outskirts of Nashville. One adviser acknowledged that the move started out as largely symbolic but ended up paying shrewd strategic benefits.
"It slimmed down the campaign [staff], meant less distractions and people felt more of the heat of the campaign. Instead of it being a day job, it became a presidential campaign," said the aide.
Led by veteran field organizers Donna Brazile and Michael Whouley, the Gore team also shifted its attention to primary voters.
"Back on Labor Day, he was still running against George Bush and talking about suburban sprawl," said Miringoff of the Marist Poll. "Now he's going for hard-core Democrats and he's a fighter."
The first test for Brazile and Whouley came less than a week after the move to Nashville when Gore traveled to Los Angeles in search of the labor unions' backing. Despite an aggressive push by the Bradley forces to postpone the vote, the AFL-CIO decided to back Gore.
"Organizationally, that gives Gore a secret weapon Bradley cannot equal in any fashion," said Garry South, a California Democratic operative. "It was very difficult because there was enormous skepticism Al Gore could rise to the occasion."
He did rise to the occasion, and in the ensuing months, began a series of debates that at times left Bradley flat-footed.
The real trouble for Bradley began in a Jan. 8 debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register in which the former New Jersey senator "made missteps that were essentially fomented by the Gore campaign," as South put it.
Gore pressed his rival to explain why he opposed federal relief for Iowa after the devastating floods of 1993 and Bradley dismissed the question, chastising Gore for focusing on the past instead of the future.
But one week later, Bradley was digging up a 15-year-old vote Gore cast on tobacco while in Congress. He then revived the debate over Gore's role in raising the prison furlough of murderer Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. Although Gore was in fact the first to tar Dukakis with that criticism, Gore studiously avoided mentioning Horton's name or race.
Today, as he contemplated a junket to the Super Bowl after watching his home-state Tennessee Titans win the conference championship, Gore was asked to think back to last May when Clinton worried aloud that the vice president's campaign had gotten off to a weak start.
Gore leaned back in his chair, and laughed.
CAPTION: On eve of caucuses, Vice President Gore Gore addresses a group gathered at North High School in Davenport, Iowa.