Unfavorite son

Winning his home state of Tennessee is a big goal -- and surprising challenge -- for Al Gore.

Published May 30, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

It don't hardly feel like it's Gore Country here.

Here's Al Gore, smiling, laughing, taking a few minutes for a photo op in the kids gym at a Nashville YMCA. About to deliver a speech on "after-school initiatives to help working families and children," Gore talks to the kids about their after-school activities at the Y.

Seconds later, he strolls into a meeting to chat with their parents and a number of other local officials about the initiative. The events and photo ops are fine, as scripted and precise as almost every single thing in Al Gore's carefully controlled world.

But to be perfectly frank, today's activities -- the 30-second foray into the kids' basketball game; the forum with the parents, a former governor and the cameras -- could be taking place anywhere. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California. There's nothing in any of it that makes it seem as though Al Gore has come home.

Sure, folks here like Gore fine -- most of 'em. Some of 'em. A lot of 'em, if you're out near Carthage, where his parents grew their crops. But in Nashville, the only politicking I see is a guy sporting a George W. Bush baseball cap in the airport. Of course, near the Gore for President headquarters on Charlotte Avenue, there are the standard-issue blue Gore signs, but even those are shouted down by billboards from the Tennessee Republican Party that damn their unfavorite son. They include a pro-Clinton rah-rah quote from the loyal Gore around the time of impeachment, as well as an accusatory, primaries-era sneer about Gore's truth-telling abilities attributed to the since-vanquished Bill Bradley.

"Tennesseans unite!" is the call of the Tennessee GOP. "Beat Al Gore and send him home -- to Washington, D.C.!"

Now, this isn't entirely fair. Albert Gore Jr. lived and worked in Tennessee after college and before representing the state in the House (1976-1984) and the Senate (1984-1992). His childhood summers were spent here, his family is from here and he seems to regard this as home. And a lot of candidates -- Missourian Bill Bradley, who represented New Jersey; Panama Canal-born D.C. Navy brat John McCain, who represents Arizona; Connecticut-born Yalie George W. Bush, now governor of Texas -- aren't pure products of their home states. (Bush went to Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts for high school as his bio conveniently forgets to mention, instead noting that he "grew up" in Midland and Houston.) Gore's ties to his home turf are at least as strong as those of plenty of other pols.

So why are he and Bush running neck-and-neck in Tennessee? A March Mason-Dixon poll had Gore with 47 percent, Bush with 40 percent. In Bush's home state of Texas, an American Research Group poll from May had the governor pummeling Gore, 70 percent to 23 percent.

But Gore's struggles with Tennessee voters are not, as Republicans would have you believe, because he's wanting as a guy or even as a politician. The problem is simply, innocently, because the state has been trending Republican for a spell now. So despite his family ties, or the fact that he represented the state in both chambers of Congress, or attended Vanderbilt Law School and Divinity School (not completing either program) -- and even though last summer he moved his presidential campaign headquarters here from Washington and has been here 10 times since he declared his candidacy, it's anything but a given that he'll win Tennessee in November.

Tennessee hasn't been Gore country in a long while. If Clinton hadn't tapped Gore to be his VP in '92, it's not even a certainty that Gore would have been able to keep hold of his Senate seat up until now.

"The state has become one of the strongest Republican strongholds in the country," estimates Kenneth Holland, chairman of the political science department at the University of Memphis.

Tennessee is politically and geographically divisible by threes. The eastern part of the state -- home to Bill Brock, who unseated Sen. Albert Gore Sr. in 1970, and former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker -- has been Republican since the Civil War. Tennessee's 2nd congressional district "has only had a Republican congressman, ever," brags Tennessee Republican Party chairman John "Chip" Saltsman Jr.

Tennessee Democrats have, in the past, found their support in the middle hilly part of Tennessee and western mountainous area. But that has changed. "Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and especially since Reagan, many white Democrats in middle and western Tennessee have switched parties," Holland says. "The politics have become highly racially polarized."

In the suburbs of Nashville and Memphis, middle-class white voters are now the Republican base, while black voters throughout the state turn out for the Democratic candidates. Swing voters are working-class whites -- "populist, religious fundamentalists who depend on government programs," in Holland's estimation. Folks who have turned out and voted for Gore in each of his statewide campaigns as a senator as well as a vice president in 1996.

"Since 1994, the Democrats have yet to field a credible statewide candidate," says Saltsman. The Republican revolution of '94 swept through this state like a Tennessee twister, unseating three-term powerhouse Jim Sasser with a little-known gazillionaire doctor named Bill Frist. Before the typhoon hit, Tennessee had a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators and a House delegation that was Dem by a ratio of 6-to-3. After the monsoon, Republicans had the governor's mansion, both Senate seats and saw their House delegation shift to one that was 5-to-4 GOP.

Since then, Gore has tried to recruit stronger candidates, but to no avail. Movie star Sen. Fred Thompson had token opposition in '96, Gov. Don Sundquist had the same in '98 and Frist will have token opposition this year.

Gore did win Tennessee in 1996, his staffers are quick to remind you. But the votes only came after a tremendous effort by Gore.

In total disproportion to Tennessee's measly 11 electoral votes, Clinton-Gore dedicated time, money and energy to winning the state in 1996 for a simple reason: pride. Of course, politically speaking, Gore wouldn't have wanted to launch a 2000 presidential race having lost his own state in 1996. But the primary motivation for the campaign's huge effort in Tennessee was to save Gore from the embarrassment of losing his home state.

In 1992, Clinton-Gore had killed the Bush-Quayle ticket in Tennessee, 47 percent to 42 percent, and led polls throughout the summer of '96.

But this time, Tennessee turned out to be one of the few places in the country where the presidential race was actually something of an interesting competition, despite the fact that neither Sen. Bob Dole nor ex-Rep. Jack Kemp were Southerners. Then again, the Dole-Kemp strategy depended upon their sweeping the South, while Clinton-Gore didn't need Tennessee's 11 electoral votes. But Gore sure wanted them.

"This is my home, and I make no secret of the fact that it is a point of personal pride for me to do the most effective job I possibly can in making our case here in Tennessee," Gore said in a 1996 interview with the Nashville Tennessean, a newspaper where he once worked as a reporter.

But in the fall of 1996, Dole-Kemp started chipping away at Clinton-Gore's lead. An early September Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research poll had Clinton with 48 percent, Dole with 40 percent, Ross Perot with 3 percent and 10 percent undecided. Back in Washington, the alarm sounded.

Gore had a Tennessee operation led by Bill Purcell, now the mayor of Nashville. But, Gore judged, that team wasn't going to be enough. So a team from the White House and the Democratic National Committee was drafted into duty and shuttled down to Nashville. In charge was Michael Whouley, now playing a key political strategy role in Gore's presidential campaign. Others included Tom Jurkovich, a Gore staffer since '88 who now works for Microsoft's government affairs department; Karen Skelton, then Gore's White House political director and now an attorney for the Federal Highway Association; Jake Siewert, now deputy White House press secretary; and top Gore fundraisers, including Winston McGregor of the Democratic Leadership Council.

They agreed to the new field operation, but only after some of them set a few conditions: They could stay at cushy hotels during the week and fly back to Washington each weekend.

The campaign, awash in cash -- some of which was later found to be raised under questionable circumstances -- agreed. "They poured as many resources in there as they could, supplementing the entire Tennessee campaign operation with an entire other campaign operation," says one former official of the Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign team. "He hadn't had a tough race for awhile in Tennessee, so he didn't have the infrastructure." Soon he did.

The team immediately set to work, running a campaign unlike a typical presidential statewide race for a small, relatively unimportant state, and one -- in the words of this official -- "more like a close-fought Senate campaign." Direct mail sent to voters was flourished with different themes and messages to match the three different geographical regions of the state. They were dressed up accordingly: mail sent to eastern Tennessee featured forests and trees, while mail sent west had photos of cotton fields.

Bob Squier, the late Democratic media maven, purchased hours of radio time for Gore advertisements, again with far different ads run on rural radio stations than those transmitting to Nashville suburbs, or those to African-American stations.

"Squier was buying in huge volume," says the official. In fact, Squier bought so much time on some of the rinky-dink stations that "some of them thought they were being purchased by the campaign."

The message of some of the ads belied the leftward shift of Gore's political leanings. University of Memphis' Holland deems Gore's current incarnation "much too liberal for the state. His positions on the environmental issues are way far left from anything you'd find in Tennessee; he wants to limit the burning of coal to reduce the greenhouse effect, while the Tennessee Valley Authority has some of the lowest electricity rates in the country because it relies heavily on coal."

Holland notes (as Bill Bradley did during the primaries) that "when he was a senator, he was basically opposed to abortion and against gun control and the vast majority of Tennessee voters would agree with those positions and not with his current positions."

Gore's '96 Tennessee campaign ads didn't talk much about a controversial late-term abortion procedure he supports, or the Brady Bill, or the assault weapons ban.

"We had this guy, a former Ag commissioner in Tennessee," describes the campaign official, "kind of a good ol' Southern pol -- I think his name was 'Cotton' something -- and he would do ads for us, mainly on rural stations, and he'd talk a lot about the values that Gore has, you know, 'the right values for Tennessee.'" The pol, L. H. "Cotton" Ivy, was commissioner of Tennessee's Department of Agriculture.

In Republican East Tennessee, the Clinton-Gore campaign talked about the economic promise of the new economy. In Nashville, the campaign rapped about welfare reform and announced a new $30 million program for genetic breast cancer research.

Speaking before a crowd of about 100 law enforcement officers at the Shelby County Training Academy in Memphis, Gore -- flanked by the Memphis police director, the Shelby County Sheriff and almost two dozen other West Tennessee policemen -- talked tough on crime, like the old Al Gore, the conservative southern senator. He told the crowd that as a police reporter for the Tennessean, "I learned a lot about life and about law enforcement." He even suggested that Dole was soft on crime, since "Dole, the president's opponent, fought hard against the extra 100,000 police officers; fought against the prevention program; fought against the anti-crime bill with the 'three strikes and you're out' provision. If we are going to continue this progress and complete the deployment of these extra 100,000 police officers, we need you to speak out loudly and clearly in favor of the policies that are moving our country in the right direction."

Gore made 14 such trips to the state in 1996 alone; Clinton made eight. Gore visited towns that had never, ever, been visited by a vice president -- Blountville, Brighton, Fruitland, Hendersonville, Spring Hill, Troy.

And Dole-Kemp were right there, too. Among the four candidates, Clinton, Gore, Dole and Kemp, more than three dozen trips to Tennessee were recorded.

"The Dole-Kemp ticket has spent far more time per capita in Tennessee than any other state," Gore told reporters. "They have spent more television money per capita in Tennessee than any other state ... They're behind in so many places that places where they're less behind look like the best opportunities for them. I think that a margin of 8 to 10 points is probably a closer margin than they have in many other places, so that is partly an explanation."

"It is a battleground, and we intend to match them speech for speech and point for point and then some," Gore added at another time. He told employees of airport tarmacs not to plan any vacations until after the election.

At one point it even seemed amusing to Gore. Dole-Kemp were going down in flames, in far more important states than Tennessee, but still they campaigned on the veep's home turf, determined to embarrass him. "They are leaving Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, New Jersey and California unattended while Sen. Dole's running mate takes a bus trip through East Tennessee," Gore noted at one point, seemingly bemused.

"We were pretty confident about the election," says the official. "One of the only things we were fighting tooth and nail was the campaign in Tennessee." Gore's parents campaigned around the state, as did his oldest daughter, Karenna. "There was a whole operation just in charge of her," the official says.

Clinton kicked in too, the official says. "The president had an impact with some Democratic voters there, but not with the swing voters we really needed."

"We were spending a lot of money. No one ever added it up."

One anti-Gore event illuminated the complex politics of being Al Gore in Tennessee. The tobacco companies held a rally in Carthage, Gore's hometown, right across the street from where the office of the Gore family farm used to be. The event "was obviously designed to poke at the vice president," says the official. "And who was there [participating in the rally] but [Democratic Tennessee Rep.] Bart Gordon, one of our campaign chairmen. That'll give you a sense of the tide we were fighting. I mean, Bart Gordon appearing at a rally clearly aimed at the president and the vice president. It shows you how Gordon and others had to walk fine line down there, too." (Just days before the election, in November 1996, tobacco farmers rallied in Carthage against allowing a Food and Drug Administration proposal to allow the government agency to regulate cigarettes and smokeless tobacco as drugs because of their nicotine content. Giving speeches were Gordon -- and eager Gore-backer "Cotton" Ivy.)

"Not since maybe the Civil War has the Volunteer State played host to as much skirmishing as it has in the 1996 presidential race," wrote Richard Locker, Nashville bureau chief of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

A Mason-Dixon poll of 823 Tennessee voters released on Nov. 1, 1996 showed Clinton-Gore tied with Dole-Kemp in the state, with 44 percent apiece.

Gore's 1992 pre-election day was spent in more than six states, with a late-night arrival back in the Volunteer State. In 1996, Gore popped by Wisconsin and Ohio, but focused much more on Tennessee -- hopping among Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis and Knoxville.

"It's a very, very competitive state that could go either way," Gore's then-chief of staff Ron Klain said the day before the election.

But it went for Gore. Clinton-Gore edged out Dole-Kemp by about 40,000 votes, 48 percent to 46 percent. The key to the victory, according to exit polls, were black voters and middle-class women, who voted for Clinton-Gore disproportionately.

"After all that, all the visits by Bill and Al and Tipper, they still only won by a point and a half," grouses Saltsman.

And, as the official points out, Sen. Fred Thompson won reelection that year with nearly 200,000 more votes than Clinton-Gore.

Holland says that Gore will have a similar fight this year, with Frist anticipated to sail to reelection. "It's one of the reasons why the vice president moved his headquarters down here."

The GOP chieftain points out that more Republicans than Democrats voted in Tennessee's primary. He allows that Gore scored more votes than Bush did in Tennessee's Super Tuesday primaries in March but, Holland says, "just barely."

"I think it will be very close," Holland guesses, "but in the end I think Gore will pull it off."

For Albert McCall, 70, a lifelong Republican and distant relation to the vice president, Gore's struggles in his home state are all pretty easy to understand. McCall lives in Carthage, has always voted Republican and will again this year.

As for Gore, "I know him real well," McCall says. "He's kin to me. On my mother's side, his dad was my mother's second cousin."

"I like him," McCall says. "I just don't like his politics."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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