Gore's premature obituary

The media hyped the vice president's dip in the polls over the summer, but ignored his resurgence in the past month.

By Eric Boehlert
Published November 10, 1999 11:48AM (EST)

Stick a fork in Al Gore -- he's done, right? The pundits said Gore gave a manic, sweaty performance at the Dartmouth College Town Hall forum late last month, and then stumbled right into the Naomi Wolf, alpha-beta mess. "If he becomes president," chuckled the Washington Post's David Maraniss on "Meet the Press" this past Sunday, "it'll be not because of any campaign, but in spite of his campaigns."

But guess what? October was Al Gore's best month on the campaign trail this year. Or you might say it was Democratic challenger Bill Bradley's worst. According to a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, by the end of October Gore opened up a 25 point lead over Bradley nationwide, gaining 13 points on the former New Jersey senator in less than 30 days.

Late October poll results from CBS News and ABC News both told the same story; Gore grabbed 15 points on Bradley and stretched his lead into comfortable margins of 26 and 38 points. Meanwhile, according to Newsweek's latest numbers, Gore has not only stopped the bleeding in New Hampshire, but now boasts a solid 10 point lead in Bradley's supposed stronghold.

Gore has also retaken his lead among Democratic voters in New York (says the New York Times) and still enjoys a 28-point cushion in the make-or-break primary state of California, where Bradley's support remains stuck in the teens. That, according to the latest Field Poll.

How could Gore be showing signs of life when the D.C. pack buried him after his Dartmouth College appearance? Gore was "clumsy," "awkward," "artificial," "glib and occasionally smug" (USA Today's Walter Shapiro); "the Eddie Haskell-Energizer Bunny" (Time's Margaret Carlson) who "hit the Dartmouth stage yakking" (Syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington). He appeared as "some sort of feral animal who had been locked in a small cage [and] came across as a kind of manic political vaudevillian" (Slate's Jacob Weisberg). He was dressed "like someone seeking employment at a country music radio station" (Washington Post's Mary McGrory). And, "If you think that Al Gore won that debate, I think you're tripping" (Washington Post's Juan Williams).

Did anybody mention the debate was deemed a toss-up by New Hampshire voters (according to Gallup)?

Unable to find new results to show Gore's campaign was still heading south, "Hardball" host Chris Matthews Monday night had nothing left to use but U.S. News & World Report data that suggested the vice president has relatively high negatives. (The magazine's one-on-one poll, which went unused, had Gore over Bradley by 21 points.)

A handful of reporters have tried to acknowledge the recent campaign shifts. Writing in Bradley's adopted hometown paper, the Newark Star-Ledger, Bob Cohen conceded Gore's national poll numbers were "inching up" -- though a gain of 12 to 15 points would seem to be more than inching up.

Time magazine's Eric Pooley opted for the same tact. He filed a snide dispatch from New Hampshire for the Nov. 8 issue, describing a "struggling" Gore "reduced to groveling for votes." But he found space three-quarters of the way through to acknowledge: "In the month since Gore began rending his garments in public, his poll numbers have stabilized against Bradley's." A 12 to 15-point surge within a 30 day window now qualifies as stabilizing?

Pooley's piece did provide one meaningful insight, though. He explained that while the D.C. press corps rarely takes Gore to task on any substantive issues, as a group they have so little regard for the candidate's style they feel free to openly mock him while covering his campaign. Pooley described the media's reaction to the Dartmouth debate, without criticism: "The 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth were, to use the appropriate technical term, totally grossed out. 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."

Perhaps the oddest head-scratcher appears in this week's Newsweek, where Howard Fineman, busy playing up Bradley's authenticity and working hard to dismiss Gore, suggested the New Hampshire results showing Gore opening up a 10 point lead there over his rival represented bad news for the vice president. Dismissing Newsweek's own findings and a week's worth of poll results that showed the Democratic race turning Gore's way, Fineman found the vice president "running scared," and decided he hadn't "gained much speed or credibility."

Gore may stumble again along the way to the nomination, and Bradley could ultimately topple him. But you should see it for yourself before believing it.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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