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Jewish World Review Oct. 20, 1999 /1 10 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

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A wild and crazy guy -- BECAUSE AMERICA is a sacrocanophiliac nation, Al Gore has declared himself the "underdog" in the race for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. This is borderline buffoonery. Gore is about 15 percentage points ahead of Bill Bradley in national polling; he is still the vice president of the United States; he is chockful of endorsements; he is still, putatively, the second most powerful man in the world.

(Sacrocanophiliac means "lover of the underdog," or at least that is what a much admired English professor of mine once told me. Can anyone out there confirm? See e-mail address below.)

Here is what Gore said to Roger Simon, chief political reporter of U.S. News & World Report in a Q&A, as issued in a USNWR press release:

Q. What makes you an underdog against Bill Bradley? He's not exactly Cicero.

A. Oh, you know, you know I mean you, you know. It is the accepted view in the press corps today that I'm the underdog in this race. And I think that is the reality. And I think that only through a process of transformation and fundamental change in the nature of my campaign can I change that.

Transformation indeed. We are told that this is the new, the newest Al Gore. He has moved his campaign headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Nashville in order to get away from "K Street to the aisles of Kmart," although the vice president will continue to reside in Washington, D.C. He has donned cowboy boots. But this is the full Monty: He is also trying to change from the inside out:

Q. Your campaign has managed to lower expectations about your winning. That's a difficult trick.

A. (Laughing) Well, it's increasingly easy.

Q. What are you doing to make it happen?

A. I'm trying to remove the obstacles. I am trying to stop holding back. I have been overly formal in my public presentations. As I get older, I'm learning more about how to shred that Southern formality that I learned from my dad and just let it all hang out.

What a wild and crazy guy. Transforming his campaign, shredding old parts of himself -- just three months before the first primary election contests. It is the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown.

When that happens, an observer inevitably starts looking at every little thing, for symptoms.

Which brings us to the televised image of Gore at the recent Iowa Democratic Party Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines, following the address of competitor Bradley.

Here is Gore, thinned-down and poured into a three-buttoned continentally styled suit, all visible buttons buttoned. He moves from behind the podium to rally his troops, no notes, no net.

His arms are waving, Nixon-like, almost out-of-synch, a clenched fist, open palms, pointed finger. "We're not going to sweep it under the rug" (hands go sweep ... ) "We have global problems" (hands round, shape of globe ... ) "I believe in the Iowa caucuses" (finger pointing to "I," him). Gore was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He spent his summers on a Tennessee farm. Has he had an other-life experience on the Lower East Side of New York?

Acting as underdoggies do, Gore begins by challenging Bradley, who is in the room, to WEEKLY debates between now and the Iowa caucuses in January, about 15 of them. "How about it Bill? If the answer is yes, stand up and wave your hand (wave)." Bradley doesn't do waving, doesn't do weekly debates. He is the overdog.

Earthily, anti-prissy, Gore says "I guarandamnteeit" that as president he will veto any anti-labor legislation. At the close, he leads a chant from his supporters, "Stay and Fight," and his supporters chant and wave placards reading "Stay and Fight." They surely will; the vice president has previously announced that if the Republicans win the White House "Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson will have veto power over the Supreme Court."

Gore's speech was not unsuccessful. He looks like a smart and able man who has been told by his handlers not to look like he's being handled by handlers. But there is weirdness, the embodiment of a man going through a mid-life crisis, on stage, seeking to be our president.

As it happens, I know what is going happen in the election campaign of 2000. Bill Bradley will run very well, likely beating Gore in some early states. When the campaign goes into the Southland, Gore will clean up as a Southerner and as a candidate who is putatively "to the right" of Bradley. A much-bruised Gore, still buttoned up in his continental suit, will be dragged across the finish line by Democratic Party elected officials. In the general election, if he opposes Gov. George W. Bush or Sen. John McCain, he really will be the underdog, and will lose, finishing sacro. I guarandamntee it.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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