• U.S.

Campaign 2000: Please Don’t Leave Me, Don’t You Go

5 minute read
Eric Pooley/Hanover

Except for his name and party affiliation, Al Gore has now changed just about everything a struggling candidate can change: clothes, consultants, message, manner. But his campaign theme song–the cheesy tune that blares at every Gore 2000 event–still needs work. He started with Shania Twain’s Rock This Country, but it only reminded people that the country isn’t rocking for him. Since shelving Shania, Gore has used the soul anthem Love Train–a call to unity that rings hollow with Democrats still divided about the nomination. But there’s hope. At the New Hampshire “town hall” forum with Gore and Bill Bradley last week, it was obvious what song captures Gore’s new mood: the old Motown hit Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.

Stalking the stage of Dartmouth College’s Moore Theater, grinning fiercely and sweating like the hardest-working man in show business, Gore seemed stoked enough to belt the words himself: “I know you wanna leave me,/ but I refuse to let you go.” He wanted to tell voters who have dumped him for Bradley that he’ll do anything to win them back. Of course, since this was Al Gore talking, the words came out a bit differently: “I would like to have your support for me,” and “Fighting for all the people–that’s what I want to do,” and finally, “I would like to work hard; if you elect me President, I will work hard.” Which is just the Vice President’s way of saying, “Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, please.”

“In the last six or eight weeks,” he said, “I’ve had a learning experience.” Make that a near-death experience–that vertiginous moment when a politician looks into the near future, sees himself writing his memoirs and responds with a frenzied attempt to connect. In the last days of the 1992 campaign, President Bush had that kind of revelation and jetted around the country, waving his arms and shouting himself hoarse. Gore’s memento mori has come earlier in the cycle, so unlike Bush, he has time to come down from his adrenaline rush and make his case in a calmer fashion.

Last week the ache was unmistakable–and even touching–but the 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth were, to use the appropriate technical term, totally grossed out by it. Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd.

Poor Gore. For months the press has been hammering him for taking the nomination for granted and not showing emotion. Now it’s hammering him for trying too hard and showing too much. Of course he was sometimes overbearing at Dartmouth–asking faux-Clintonian personal questions (“How old is your child, Corey?”) and then, after the event, sitting on the lip of the stage for 90 minutes to expound–impressively, by the way–on policy until everyone was exhausted, and Tipper said, “Al, I’m going to have to go.” But the interesting question isn’t whether Gore’s exhibitionism is a tactic (it is) but whether groveling works any better in politics than it does in love.

There’s some evidence that it might. In the month since Gore began rending his garments in public, his poll numbers have stabilized against Bradley’s and risen against George W. Bush’s. Americans tend to reward candidates who are hungry for the job–fire in the belly and all that. But if anyone can prove it’s possible to try too hard, it’s Gore. And if anyone can prove the counterargument–that a cool new paradigm is emerging this year–it may be Bradley, the candidate who seems not to be trying at all. He is too proud to beg. When he asked for votes at Dartmouth, here’s how it came out: “I would hope you’d feel that I would be your candidate.” And if not, he can live with that.

Among the Republicans, it’s Bush who works hard at not wanting it. All year his signature stance has been take me or leave me, but that’s easy to say when you have a 40-point lead. Last week, with that lead thinning in New Hampshire, he pretended to regret blowing off a G.O.P. candidates’ forum, but no one believed him. The other candidates are getting the message. At the forum, when Steve Forbes made his pitch for votes, he said, “I would beg you.” Then he corrected himself: “I ask for your support.”

But Bradley remains the master of dispassion–a post-Clinton pose that has fueled his candidacy. At Dartmouth, when Gore attacked Bradley’s health-care plan as too costly (citing a supposedly “nonpartisan” study written by his former adviser), Bradley scarcely seemed to care. “We each have our own experts,” he sighed. Now Bradley is realizing that higher octane may be required. Bradley’s staff, which at Dartmouth scoffed at Gore’s rapid-response handouts (“They’re fighting the last war,” sniffed an aide), is sending out attack faxes slapping Gore for “promises without price tags.” Bradley didn’t have much choice except to engage, but it’s risky–politics as usual–and maybe a little sad. If he’s not careful, he’s going to let them see him sweat.

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