After months of miscues, Gore getting campaign in gear

Friday, August 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Vice President Al Gore entered a Chicago convention hall Tuesday afternoon to a raucous ovation from union carpenters – one that would have been hard to imagine during the many dark days of his presidential campaign.

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The union members, packed six deep behind rope lines, reached frantically toward Mr. Gore as he high-fived his way through the hall. When he finally made it to the lectern, Mr. Gore placed his hand over his heart in what seemed an earnestly emotional gesture and thanked the laborers for their welcome.

"I felt a little bit like it was the Super Bowl," he said, "and I was the last player introduced running through the gantlet of all the others."

That is a new feeling for Mr. Gore, whose campaign has struggled to catch a break through months of misfortune, some of it self-inflicted, some not. But in the last three weeks, as he has watched the country and the polls respond approvingly to his selection of a running mate, to his separation from President Clinton, to his speech to the Democratic National Convention, and to a picturesque post-convention cruise down the Mississippi, Mr. Gore is finally in a political groove.

If Mr. Gore defeats Gov. George W. Bush in November, historians will undoubtedly see this period as a turning point.

Surveys released Thursday show that Mr. Gore has erased Mr. Bush's lead nationwide while providing good news for him in several key states. He has pulled even in Michigan and has increased his lead in New Jersey and California.

Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster not affiliated with the Gore campaign, conducted a focus group Wednesday night in a suburb outside St. Louis and was amazed by the shifting perceptions of Mr. Gore. The voters interviewed, he said, now see Mr. Gore more as a leader and less as Mr. Clinton's subordinate. They understand his agenda, he said, and can verbalize reasons to vote for Mr. Gore, not simply against Mr. Bush.

"It was remarkable," Mr. Hart said. "Gore's lift off the convention is much more than a numerical lift. It's a platform and a platform for him to build upon."

William Kristol, a Republican strategist and the publisher of The Weekly Standard, said Mr. Gore had benefited immensely from the transition of the Democratic ticket from Clinton-Gore to Gore-Lieberman. And he said that Mr. Gore had demonstrated boldness by selecting Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate and by using his convention speech to lay out a forward-looking agenda.

"Bush may actually have to win this campaign now instead of just watching Gore lose it," Mr. Kristol said, "and that's starting to sink in with some Republicans."

Mr. Gore seems comfortable with his message. The recent prosperity has been great, he says, but some have been left out, and he will broaden the impact through tax cuts and new spending aimed at the middle class. The enemy, he makes it clear, is not big government but selected big industries, including oil, insurance and pharmaceuticals.

A CBS News poll taken just after the Democratic convention, one of several that now show Mr. Gore with a slight lead, found that 61 percent of those questioned said that Mr. Gore was articulating what he wanted to accomplish. In a poll taken two weeks earlier, only 36 percent said so.

"This campaign," said Chris Lehane, Mr. Gore's press secretary, "was like a car where you turn the engine and it almost catches and almost catches. And then, last week, it finally caught."