Can Al Gore go home again?

The former vice president tries to reconnect with the home state that deserted him, amid criticisms he's "still caviar, not catfish."

Topics: Al Gore,

Can Al Gore go home again?

When Al Gore left the national stage in December 2000, he told the country he was going back to Tennessee to “mend some fences, literally and figuratively.” The figurative part alluded to his home state’s abandonment of him on Election Day, where Gore became the first presidential nominee to lose his home state in 28 years, losing all 11 of its electoral votes, and with it, the presidency.

The literal part might have been a reference to an embarrassing story that broke during June 2000, when the Weekly Standard visited Tracy and Charles Mayberry, tenants on Gore’s rental property at the Gore family farm in Carthage, Tenn. Writer Matt Labash described a grim picture: “The plaster was coming off the walls, the linoleum was peeling off the kitchen floor, the basin of the bathroom sink was a constipated sludge puddle, the guts of one toilet tank had to be held together with Sunbeam bread bag twisties, and both bathroom toilets overflowed — when they flushed at all.”

Labash tagged Gore a “sanctimonious slumlord.” Tracy Mayberry said Gore could “kiss my ass.” And a key bit of GOP spin of Gore as an out-of-touch elitist was fortified in his home state.

Now, Gore splits his time between a home in Virginia and his home in Carthage, and the Mayberrys are long gone. The new tenants, David and Amy McKissick, moved in the spring of 2001, and while they say the house needed work, they agreed to do it themselves, and Gore paid them to put in hardwood floors, a new heating and air-conditioning system, new plumbing and a new roof. Unaware of the previous scandal, they seem genuinely indifferent to their landlord’s politics. “We’re not involved politically with either party. We don’t vote,” Amy McKissick said. “Politically we’re not interested in anything.” But they say Gore’s been “just fine.”

They may never vote for him, but you can still consider the McKissicks a sort of victory for Gore here. That fence is officially mended. Reconnecting with the people of Tennessee, though, may be a tougher job as he decides whether to run for president in 2004. No candidate has ever won the presidency without also winning his home state. Yet it’s a real question whether Gore’s campaign messages will resonate to a majority of Tennessee voters, because his problem in Tennessee is much the same as the Democrats’ problem in the South, and the much-ballyhooed “red states.”



Take, for instance, Gore’s newfound role as a sort of president-in-exile, criticizing Bush. Beginning with a full-on partisan stump speech at the Florida Democratic convention in April, to last week, when Gore was among the first to voice outrage at the Republicans for shilling as a fundraiser a photograph of the president on the phone aboard Air Force One on Sept. 11, Gore has all but become Bush’s official nemesis. So much so that last week, after reports of various pre-Sept. 11 terrorist warnings to the Bush administration, it was notable that he chose to say nothing.

That might play well with Democrats on both coasts, but most Tennessee voters are already predisposed to dislike Gore’s positions — and surely any criticism of Bush. This was a state that had became such a lost cause, in fact, that late in the 2000 race, senior aides told Salon that Gore deliberately turned his attention away from Tennessee and toward Florida, knowing it would likely mean losing his home state. And as he indefatigably crisscrosses the state, shaking hands with anyone and everybody, he still doesn’t appear to have figured out a way to bring those Southern swing voters who fell for Bush back into the fold.

On the wall of Al Gore’s new Nashville office is a Tennessee map covered in black squiggles that separate all 95 counties, with clusters of pushpins marking the counties Gore has already visited on his fence-mending tour. So far, there are about 30 pins in the map, but by the end of the year, Gore plans to have visited each county.

It’s a vivid illustration of Gore’s focus since his loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign. For about a year, he has been showing up at small community events, sometimes virtually unannounced. His aides say Gore sometimes drives himself to these gatherings, free from the trappings of the vice presidency.

His political staff is made up mostly of young members of his 2000 campaign, including five staffers around or under age 30 who are now in high-level positions — spokesman Jano Cabrera, 28; PAC political director Mona Mohib, 31; state political director Robert McLarty, 26; finance director Josh Cherwin, 24; and senior aide Dave Cusack, 25.

McLarty and Cabrera both describe the crowd of people surrounding Gore as “loyalists,” the implication of course being that those who’ve departed fall into some other category. While Gore’s inner circle has shrunk, he still receives informal counsel from a slew of Washington-based presidential campaign veterans, including Carter Eskew, Kiki McLean, Mike Feldman, policy advisor Sarah Bianchi and fundraiser Peter Knight.

For the last year, Gore has spent an average of two days a week in the state, according to Cabrera. He has been a visiting professor at Fisk University and Middle Tennessee State University, and he and his wife, Tipper, have been hunting for a new house in Nashville. Suddenly, he’s a ubiquitous presence. He has also virtually ignored the press. Gore hasn’t submitted to a sit-down interview since the end of the 2000 campaign (he declined, through Cabrera, a request from Salon as well). “He’s doing this at his own pace this time,” says Cabrera. “At this point, he is enjoying the pace that he’s setting, and at one point, he will be more than happy to meet with the fourth estate.”

His return to the state is a dramatic reversal from the 2000 campaign, when he made only five appearances — compared with his 14 appearances during the 1996 Clinton/Gore reelection campaign, which they carried by a scant 2 percent. Gore trailed so badly in the state that, during the final days of the campaign, according to several past and present confidants, he ultimately gave up on Tennessee to focus his attention on Florida, a state the campaign felt he could not afford to lose.

“It was about 500 votes away from being brilliant,” said one former senior advisor.

The NRA, the National Right to Life Committee and the Bush campaign had all been spending heavily on TV and radio ads in the state, tarring Gore as a gun-confiscating, baby-killing liberal who was out of touch with socially conservative Tennesseans. Gore’s East Tennessee director Warren Gooch says he and other local leaders were clamoring for more resources so they could respond to the attacks, but were shut out by the national campaign.

Finally, on the Friday before Election Day, Gore attended a rally of 10,000 in Republican-heavy East Tennessee, but the damage had already been done. “The rally in Knoxville was fantastic,” says Gooch. “It was just 30 days too late.” In the end, Gore lost Tennessee, 51 to 48 percent, or roughly 79,000 votes. Many veterans of Gore 2000 insist that had the national campaign advisors poured more resources into the state it would have been a different picture. Maybe. But the state Al Gore represented for 16 years in Congress — eight in the House and eight in the Senate — is not the same state that cost him the White House.

Nissan and Saturn plants came to the state in the 1990s, helping to spur the growth of suburbs around Nashville and Memphis, and middle-class white voters of a particular conservative stripe. Between 1990 and 2000, the suburbs of Nashville drove the state’s population growth, which increased by 5.6 million people, or 17 percent. While suburban growth in states like California has meant good news for Democrats, in the South it’s just the opposite, according to one Southern political expert.

“With the rise of an urbanized middle class, some of those counties surrounding Nashville now tend to go Republican, same thing in Memphis,” says Merle Black, professor of politics at Emory University and author of “The Rise of Southern Republicans.” “In the South, the suburbs have been generally upwardly mobile whites who are making money — middle-income and upper-income voters — who are very concerned about taxation. They identify the Democratic Party as the party of taxation. They’re not superconservative, they’re not Jesse Helms types, but on economic issues, their view is, it’s their money, not the government’s money. So Bush is very popular among these voters.”

While Black argues that the South is home to “two competitive minority parties,” he doesn’t foresee a Democrat being able to successfully challenge Bush in the near future. “Bush is a lot stronger in the South than he was when he was elected,” Black says. “A lot of people talk about [Sen.] John Edwards [D-N.C.]. I don’t think John Edwards would carry North Carolina against George Bush.”

Tennessee voters do not register with a political party, but the results of the last few elections tell the story. In 1994, Democrats lost both U.S. Senate seats and the governor’s mansion. They haven’t regained them since.

Some Republicans insist Tennessee remains a swing state. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, a candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Fred Thompson, says his party would be making a mistake to take Tennessee for granted.

“The recent Republican domination in Tennessee is just that — recent,” Alexander says. “It’s very much a toss-up state. It’s been very Republican since Eisenhower, but Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton both showed a Southern Democrat can carry Tennessee.”

The problem for Democratic presidential aspirants goes beyond just Tennessee. Of all the states in the old confederacy, Gore won exactly zero. At the same time, eight Southern states, seven of which share borders with Tennessee — Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Missouri and Virginia — all have Democratic governors. In 2000, even as some of those governors were elected, all of those states voted for George W. Bush.

That’s because the new successful Southern Democrat resembles the national Democratic Party less and less. Southern Democrats who have won statewide races in the South, like Georgia Sen. Zell Miller — who more frequently votes with Republicans than Democrats on the Hill — say Democrats must tailor their message on the national level to be more appealing to Southern swing voters. “For a politician in the South, gun control is not just about guns. Gun control — along with a whole bunch of other issues — is about values,” Miller wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed last year. “What you are for says a lot about who you are and who you aren’t. If Southern voters ever start to think you don’t understand them — or even worse, much worse, if they think you look down on them — they will never vote for you. Folks in the South have a simple way of saying this: ‘He’s not one of us.’ And when a politician hears these words, he’s already dead.”

That is precisely the way the Bush campaign and its surrogates painted Gore in 2000 — as an outsider. And it’s something local Republicans here continue to chant. Tennessee Republican Party executive director Matt King said he expects Republicans will continue to use Gore as a rallying point for the local GOP faithful. “That name still infuriates our base,” King said, adding that Republicans still hold the image of Gore as a Washington elitist whose claim to Tennessee was exclusively political. “Al Gore is still caviar, not catfish.”

Gore need only look at the Democrats he’s trying to help win election this year to witness the disconnect. Democrats in the state are optimistic about former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen’s chances to win the governorship, and they express cautious optimism for Rep. Bob Clement’s chances in the Senate race. But a candidate for governor or senator has the freedom to tailor his message to fit the population. These are Democrats who brag about their conservatism.

“The great success we’ve had in Tennessee comes from the fact that we understand these voters,” says Democratic political consultant Bill Fletcher. “We try not to allow these races to become nationalized. We focus on Tennessee issues and Tennessee values.” That’s something Gore can’t afford to do.

Take gun control. NRA president Charlton Heston and CEO Wayne LaPierre stumped in Tennessee in the closing days of the campaign, accusing Gore of abandoning his once-strong support of gun rights when he decided to run for president. “The gun issue is not a big issue here; it’s a big value here,” says Fletcher. “Think of the voter as a police officer. If they pull you over, they’re going to check your credentials. They look through your wallet and say, ‘OK, you’re for Social Security, you’re against gun control, you’re generally anti-tax,’ and they say, ‘OK, you may run.’ If you fail that credentialing process, then it becomes a more difficult campaign.”

Gore, however, gave up a strong gun-rights position in an effort to sustain the support of, say, swing-voting soccer moms in the Northeast. Democrats here don’t have that worry, so bumper stickers for the Democratic gubernatorial front-runner boast hunting rifles, advertising “Sportsmen for Bredesen.” At a Democratic fundraiser, Gore friend Randy Button, himself once a candidate for Congress, puts his arm around congressional candidate Lincoln Davis, and proclaims of the Democrat, “You aren’t going to out-gun this man, you aren’t going to out-preach him and you aren’t going to out-family him, and that’s the kind of candidate that I think we’re seeing here.” And when they do seem too liberal, they learn about it quickly: The Democratic state speaker of the house here received a death threat earlier this month for proposing to introduce a state income tax.

So what can Gore say that will turn Tennessee? More than 1,000 Democrats came to the Knoxville Holiday Inn in early May to hear him speak, in what Knox County Democratic Party organizers say was a record crowd for its annual Truman Day fundraising dinner. The room was full of Gore loyalists and friends, and each had an opinion about how and why candidate Gore lost his home state in the last presidential election, and what he should do differently the next time.

It was his stand against subsidies for tobacco farmers, his position on guns, Clinton fatigue, the perception that he was an environmental extremist. County Democratic chairman Wade Till even postulates that it was because he snubbed the NASCAR circuit. “He didn’t play the car racing thing right. He didn’t go to a single car race,” Till said incredulously.

To an outsider, the Truman dinner feels like any other campaign gathering. About 150 tables are lined up in the ballroom, set with white tablecloths, American flag centerpieces. The ice in the water glasses has long since melted, small plates of limp mixed greens droop under the weight of puddled greyish salad dressing. During his run for president, Al Gore visited thousands of rooms just like this one.

But there are some differences between this event and a Gore presidential fundraiser. One is the freedom of movement. There is no roped-off area for reporters, anxious supporters pace freely between the ballroom and the driveway out front waiting to catch a glimpse of Gore as he arrives. When he does, he pulls up with two aides in a blue minivan. The only law enforcement present are two local sheriffs deputies.

The ballroom is stocked with old Gore friends like Davis, who is running for Gore’s former seat in Tennessee’s 4th District, one of the most competitive races in the country this year.

There’s plenty of bitterness here left over from the last presidential campaign, and Gore stokes it. “I want you to think about how you felt the day after that election, and then I want you to channel all that energy into electing a Democratic governor for the state of Tennessee, and a Democratic United States senator,” and so on.

During these stump speeches, even for little state races, Gore has focused most of his energy on honing his role as official critic to the president. While expressing support for the president’s war against terrorism, he ventures a criticism of Bush’s handling of the Middle East crisis, saying, “I feel the Bush administration lost invaluable time, almost a year and a half,” by not being actively involved in the region, and that “Democrats should be prepared to support the president where he is right as he threads his way forward, but there should also be certain red lines as regards the security of Israel.”

But the thrust of Gore’s attacks focus on Bush’s domestic agenda, spanning everything from Social Security to Medicare to Enron, and accusing the Bush administration of manipulating post-Sept. 11 patriotism to justify what Gore calls the administration’s “blatantly dishonest budget plan.”

“The president of the United States,” he told the crowd, “should not take that kind of unity and patriotism and attempt to misuse it as a way of getting support on the cheap for some right-wing domestic agenda item and pretend that it’s related to our national security.”

It’s good red-meat rhetoric that when delivered at last month’s Florida Democratic Convention garnered him abundant press and made him an instant nemesis to a president who — until last week — received notably little public opposition from Democrats in Washington. Delivered to a group of Tennessee voters, where Israel is not exactly a front-burner topic, it’s a curious subject choice. Other than this reporter, his speech got no notice from the national press. So even when he’s among Tennesseans, he doesn’t tailor his line. And maybe — since railing against a state income tax is out of the question — it’s because he can’t.

If Gore’s performance so far is an indication, he seems to be hoping most that his efforts to restore some personal goodwill in Tennessee will translate into votes, should he decide to run again. And that may be the only option he has.

The most prominent Democrat in the state right now is probably the young and charismatic Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Memphis. Like Gore, he’s a favorite son; his father held the congressional seat for 22 years before stepping aside for his son. He’s a more liberal Democrat — he’s openly pro-choice and supports limited gun control, and at 32, he’s one of the party’s great hopes for its next generation.

He’s also an African-American who represents a district with an extremely large black voter base, and one that, with a few exceptions, has lagged behind the state’s own limited financial gain of the last decade. At the Truman dinner, Ford tried to put the best spin on Gore’s rehabilitation campaign.

But when asked about Gore’s chances, he offered a particularly grim observation. He suggested the best the former vice president could hope for is the worst: meaning, for Gore to stand a chance in Tennessee, conditions — the economy, perhaps — would have to truly go south.

“When things are good, I think Democrats sometimes don’t look quite as appealing as Republicans do,” he said. “But when things are difficult, I think people look to Democrats to lead.”

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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