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Jewish World Review August 30, 2000 / 29 Menachem-Av, 5760

Roger Simon

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Consumer Reports

AlGore: Wealth and power are intrinsically bad -- CHICAGO | How good has it been going for Al Gore since he planted that kiss on Tipper, delivered that speech to the Democratic Convention, and visited a series of Mississippi River towns in which he quacked like a duck, pretended to eat a child's nose and autographed a couple's cantaloupes?

This good: In a recent interview, the vice president told me that it is not just Democrats and independents swarming to him at rope lines, but an actual "flood" of Republicans willing to bolt their party and climb onto his newly oiled bandwagon.

"I think that there are a lot of Republicans who agree with me far more than they agree with my opponent," said a tanned and relaxed vice president, sitting in a holding room in the bowels of Chicago's cavernous McCormick Place after his four-day boat and bus journey. "And I've been running into more and more of them. And just in the last week, there has been a flood of them coming up to me at events and in rope lines, saying: 'You've converted me. I've been a lifelong Republican. I've never voted Democratic. But I'm for you.' "

And in those dark days when he was in the Valley of the Shadow of Bad Poll Numbers, when the press was writing about his alpha male clothing, the disarray of his staff and the dullness of his speeches, did he know deep his heart that things would turn around and a brighter day would dawn?

"Uh ... no," Gore said. "No."

Stiff Al? Dull Al? Mean Al? Who were those guys? In their place has emerged Your Pal, Al. Your champion. The man who is on your side against the wealthy and the powerful who seek to do you harm.

It is a clever tactic: Without mentioning his opponent's name, Gore can define himself as a defender of America's "working families" while defining his opponent as a defender of the "special interests, whether it's the drug companies, the insurance companies, the HMOs, big oil."

And while some strategists within the Democratic Party are deathly afraid of what they call Gore's "class warfare" message, Gore is so confident that he is on the right track that he is daring people to turn their backs on him.

As the skies opened up in Hannibal, Mo., home of Mark Twain (and where Joe Lieberman introduced himself as Twain's "Connecticut Yankee"), Gore said: "It's raining. You want to leave, leave. It's your choice. But I'm stayin' to talk specifics, and after the speech I don't care if the lightning is coming down, I'm going to stay and shake hands! If you don't want to hear specifics, now is your time to leave!"

Nobody left, and when he finished his speech, Gore shook hands for nearly an hour, his shirtback soaked, his hair matted with rain and sweat, leaning over the security fences and deep into the crowd with both hands -- just like Bill Clinton used to do -- with a Secret Service agent behind him holding onto his shoulder and his belt so the people did not drag Gore away and carry him home.

Though polls do not show massive defections of Republicans to Gore and give him only a modest lead over George W. Bush, Gore believes the comments of the people on ropelines are more reliable than any polls, believes Republican defections are real and says he expected it all along.

"The magnitude of it has been (a surprise)," he said in the interview.

"Yes, indeed. Not the phenomenon, but the magnitude of it."

The key to Gore's approach is an appeal to "working families," though both Gore and his aides dismiss the notion that he is downscaling his message from "soccer moms" to "waitress moms" or doing any other fancy demographic targeting.

To them, the phrase has a much more fundamental resonance: "Everyone in America is either in a working family or else they are the idle rich," one senior Gore aide said. "And whose side would you rather champion in an election?"

But if Americans are enjoying unprecedented wealth -- wealth that Gore says he and Bill Clinton helped create -- why do they need a champion to defend them from the "wealthy and powerful"?

Because, Gore says, even the new wired-worker, double-income, six-figure annual salary couple still needs someone on their side.

"If you're making an income like that, believe it or not, you may still be in the group feeling pressure when you make the house payments and car payments and all the other bills that you pay," he said. "And if your elderly parents have prescription medicine bills nearly as large as their Social Security check, you have a stake in a prescription drug benefit for seniors under the Medicare program. If your kids aspire to do as well or better than you, you have a stake in bringing about revolutionary improvements in our public schools."

Gore went on to talk about how all families, regardless of income, wanted lower crime rates, and less pollution, and medical care in which a "doctor's medical decisions" will not be "overruled by clerks for HMOs."

And so is his message really a class message at all?

"No, not at all, not at all," Gore insisted. "It's a message in favor of competition, an open marketplace, public investments to increase the level of opportunity and unleash the potential of the American people."

But make no mistake, there is a powerful populist underpinning to Gore's approach. Asked if there is something about wealth and power that's intrinsically bad or that people should be suspicious of, Gore responded with a firm: "Yeah!"

Nor is his stump speech sunny and bright as was Bill Clinton's in 1996.

Instead, it is filled with warnings of how the good times can come to a shuddering halt if the wrong decisions are made and the wrong people are put in power.

But are Americans, in the middle of good economic times, really ready for a tough speech?

"I think so," Gore said. "I think that for all the good times, people feel like they're working harder, longer hours, they're getting less sleep, they have less time to spend with their families, they feel a little bit like they're on a treadmill, walking faster and faster to stay in place, and they wonder where that's heading. The point of my agenda is that if we make the right choices, we really can head in the right direction. We can have more prosperity and more time with our families. We can have higher incomes and a higher quality of life. There's just no question about it."

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