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Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 2000 / 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Roger Simon

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Consumer Reports

The Al and Tipper show -- ALL PRESIDENTIAL campaigns end up being about fear. If voters make the wrong decision, good times will turn bad (or, if they are already bad, they will get worse).

Peace will turn to war, wealth will turn to want, hope will become despair. Only through the right choice can there be salvation, only through the right man deliverance.

So when Al Gore talks about prosperity, he is really talking about the fear of losing it. He is really talking, as he tells a crowd last week in an airplane hangar in Everett, Wash., about ending up broke, alone and afraid in a county poorhouse.

"Sixty-five years ago, we began the Social Security system in America," he says. "Prior to that time there were county poorhouses."

There are gasps from the crowd. Though few can remember when such things existed, all can summon up mental images, mostly drawn from Charles Dickens, of what they must have been like. "And those seniors who had lost the ability to earn their own way had to throw themselves on the mercy of the local government," says Gore.

Local government? Local government can't fix potholes, audience members must be thinking, but it's going to take care of me in my old age?

Gore, with his shirt sleeves rolled up above his elbows, continues: "There was no way to assure they were treated with dignity. Social Security changed all that. And now my opponent is proposing to privatize Social Security."

The audience can see it, smell it, taste it: a Republican presidency, a Social Security system in ruins, seniors shuffling forward in the dank basement of a poorhouse, their bowls held up for a ladle of gruel.

"For me," Gore will say later, "that's really kind of what this whole race is about: It's important that nobody takes our prosperity for granted."

Those opposed to Gore also believe in fear itself. George W. Bush tells crowds that Gore is a "partisan, big-spending Washington insider," who will leave this country "trillions in debt."

Poorhouses? We may not be able to afford poorhouses under Al Gore. Seniors may have to graze the countryside in herds, seeking their sustenance like cattle.

Not that all is gloom and doom on the campaign trail. On the Gore campaign, there is also, well, lust.

Gore flies into Shreveport, La., where the tarmac crowd is hot and happy under a blazing autumn sun. Gore is in a playful mood. At most stops, he is introduced by his wife, Tipper, who goes through a list of concerns designed to appeal to women while also raising the fear of what will happen if Republicans gain the White House.

"We have to protect the right to choose," she says. "We need more money for breast cancer research. They will take us backward into the Dark Ages."

She then points out how her husband volunteered for military service in Vietnam and, while running for president, also managed to attend all of their son's football games. At the end, she introduces Gore, who hugs and kisses her.

This time, however, as Tipper is speaking, Gore steadily advances on her to the enormous delight of the audience. "I'm ready!" he shouts.

Tipper turns around and gives him both a startled and bemused look. "Oh, yeah?" she says. Gore plants an open-mouth kiss on her as the crowd goes wild. Tipper breaks away from his clinch to turn back to the microphone, and Gore shouts, "It wasn't long enough!"

Tipper wisely leaves that line alone and says to him: "We don't have time! We need every vote!"

And they do. Polls essentially show the race a dead heat, but with Gore suddenly facing the possibility that Ralph Nader could cost him five or six states.

Asked whether he would like Nader to drop out, Gore wisecracked, "I'd like Bush to do that."

The solution? There are many people with many ideas (mobilize the base vote, reach out to women, solidify the hold on seniors), but there is one thing the Gore campaign is adamant about: Bill Clinton is not the solution; he is the problem.

In normal times, a popular president could be expected to transfer some of that popularity to his vice president. But Clinton's presidency has been anything but normal. Americans are so conflicted over him and his record that the Gore campaign has little choice but to be all about Al and nobody else.

Gore's focus groups with both black and white voters show the same thing: The voters want to hear from Gore, not Clinton.

In a crowd on the fairgrounds in Jackson, Tenn., Diane Wright, 52, of Humboldt, says she is a swing voter and impressed with Gore but might vote for Bush. Why? "Probably because of Clinton," she says. "Gore should have been stronger. He could have distanced himself. A lot of people in Tennessee feel that way."

So there will be no joint appearances, though Clinton will stump on his own -- he's heading to California and Kentucky this week, and probably several other states, with the stated intention of campaigning for congressional candidates.

The Gore campaign has also done a historical analysis and has concluded that vice presidents tend to grow stronger in the last few weeks of their campaigns.

And Gore has grown considerably stronger as a candidate. While Bush has also improved and, at his best, is a smooth and persuasive speaker, Gore, when he is on, has developed into one of the best orators in the Democratic Party.

"I want to fight for you," he roars to the crowds in a gravel-throated voice. "And I need you to fight for me! I will not always be the most exciting politician, but I will work hard every single day and I will never let you down. I will fight for you with every ounce of strength I have. I want to fight for you! I want to fight for your families! I want to fight for Pennsylvania (or Michigan or Florida or Oregon). I want to fight for America! G-d bless you!"

"Preach it, Al!" a man yells out from the crowd in Jackson. And that is what Gore is doing. Promising milk and honey if voters turn to him and four years in the wilderness if they vote for Bush. Think Gore is too hot? He will be too hot in your behalf! Think he is too cold? He will be too cold to the special interests who are trying to stick you in that poorhouse! "I yam what I yam," he tells the crowds, Popeye fashion. "I yam who I yam. This election will come down to what's in your heart."

In Everett, in the shadow of the Olympic mountain range, Gore found the metaphor for the last days of his quest. "Right now we're at the final base camp, getting ready for the final ascent on the summit," he said.

"And I'm pumped!"

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate