Mad about you

Al Gore's New Hampshire campaign feels more like a city council run than a White House bid. And it's working.

Published February 1, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

It's just after 7 a.m., and Al Gore is standing in a miserable, bone-chillingly icy rain outside the Lockheed-Martin Sanders plant in Nashua, N.H. He's shaking hands with employees as they walk from the parking lot to the front door of the plant. Behind a rope line a few yards away stand a dozen photographers and reporters covered with parkas and slickers and scarves and overcoats and whatever else they can find to drape over their heads; but Gore is more or less exposed to the elements in his "post Naomi Wolf alpha male makeover" brown field coat.

The vice president is so eager and exuberant that if you didn't know any better, you'd probably think he were running for school board or city council and not president. "Hi. I'm Al Gore. I'd really like your vote tomorrow." Over and over and over.

Every so often, a stray employee makes his or her way to the factory door, but Gore manages to spot the person through the small crowd of campaign hands and Secret Service agents and with a sort of "oh goody" grin on his face bounds over to shake their hand too. "Hi. I'm Al Gore. I need your vote in the primary tomorrow." If he can help it, Gore won't let a single person get by.

This has become the essence of the vice president's campaign: Al Gore really wants to be president. And he's not afraid to show it. Got a question? He'll give you an answer. Got a problem? He'll try to solve it. The handshake-at-the-factory-door routine is a standard political ritual -- especially in New Hampshire, where voters get catered to as they do in no other state. But Gore brings an extra element of self-abnegation to the campaign trail.

On Saturday, at a town hall meeting of undecided voters in Lebanon, Gore spent the first several minutes telling his listeners that they didn't have to worry if they didn't get called upon. He would not leave the building until every last person had a chance to ask his or her question.

From one perspective, some of this may seem a little undignified or overeager. But it captures pretty well the dynamics of the Democratic primary campaign as they've been playing out over the last week in New Hampshire. Whereas Bill Bradley's campaign is increasingly about him (his principles, his commitment, his idealism, his change of heart on negative campaigning), Al Gore's campaign is all about you.

Is this pandering? Maybe. But on the day before the New Hampshire primary, it seemed to be working. After an overnight snowstorm led to the cancellation of classes at a school where Gore was scheduled to hold an event, the campaign hastily scheduled a series of visits to dinners around the southern part of the state.

After momentarily lashing out at Bill Bradley on Sunday for launching a series of personal attacks against him, Gore went back to the general election themes he'd been campaigning on for the most of the week. When a reporter at a campaign stopover in Tilton asked him whether Bradley seemed "desperate," Gore resisted taking the bait and said he would stick to the issues and wouldn't make any "personal characterizations."

The real story of the day from the Gore campaign, however, was less about the high-road message than the palpable mood of confidence radiating from Gore's handlers and political operatives. When Gore returned to New Hampshire after his stinging defeat of Bradley in Iowa on Jan. 24, his speeches shifted decisively toward the general election themes he plans to use against George W. Bush in the fall. Gore's digs at Bradley's health care proposal weren't absent entirely, but there was little edge to them and they were moved toward the end of his speeches.

And Gore staffers traveling with the vice president seem convinced that Bradley's last minute switch from high-road sermonizing to low-road personal attacks simply isn't working. If anything, the relative lack of spin getting dished out of the Gore camp seems to testify to their level of confidence. The trash talking about Bradley which had flowed from the collective mouths of the Gore campaign Sunday was replaced by barbed jokes about the vice president's sole Democratic competitor.

Riffing on one of Bradley's favorite lines, Gore media man Bob Shrum told me Monday afternoon, "Bill Bradley turned out to be a different kind of politician than the different kind of politician he said he would be."

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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