His campaign staff was only expecting 500 students, but Al Gore drew a multigenerational, multihued crowd of over 1,000 to a rally Thursday at the University of Maryland. Professors, union members and parents with children in tow sat hip to hip with scores of T-shirted coeds in an outdoor amphitheater, all to hear the newly nominated, reenergized Democratic candidate.
Though much has been made of the need to involve young people politically, there was little evidence of slacker indifference or ignorance at this gathering. "From what I've studied of Keynesian economics, I think Gore's policies are better [than Bush's]," said Evan Coren, who's studying government, politics and history at the university. "During times of surplus, you're supposed to pay down the debt. George Bush doesn't plan to do that and Gore does."
"I'm here as a student of democracy," said one non-voting Gore lover, Rohit Tripathi, a student from India. Like Coren, Tripathi was skeptical about Bush's economic plans. "I don't think that Bush has worked out his numbers. Plus the Clinton administration has done so much with foreign policy. I want to see that progress continue."
It wasn't only Gen Xers who arrived already in Gore's corner. So did many baby boomers. "I'm here because I am a Gore supporter," said Jordan Goodman, professor of physics, who then bashed the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader. "Here we have Nader, who's running a campaign against an environmentalist like Gore, which could potentially help Bush get elected," Goodman said, dismissing the arguments of protest voters. "I'd rather save the environment than make a point."
Nothing could spoil the supportive environment surrounding the event, not even a long, teasing delay. Just a short time after the event was scheduled to start, the podium speakers began to pump out house music, and the two dozen students seated on stage clapped in time to "100 Percent Pure Love." The crowd leapt to its feet, sure that the vice president would soon follow. Some lifted the "Gore/Lieberman" signs that the campaign had helpfully provided, others drew their cameras from back pockets and purses, waiting for Gore to appear. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting ...
Fifteen minutes later, when Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening and two college students ascended the stage to introduce Gore, the audience was still on its feet, if a little weary. But the electricity was back up when the vice president finally arrived. He mounted the podium to the sound of thunderous applause and the wild flapping of campaign signs. Shortly after Gore settled into his speech, audience members retook their seats, and listened in near silence.
Taking a page from the Bill Clinton playbook, Gore used the appearance to hype a cuddly, targeted tax cut. He hyped his proposed college tax credit, which would allow Americans to deduct 28 percent of the first $10,000 of tuition, and paired that with a new "401(j)" plan, in which citizens could save tax-free dollars for education throughout their lifetimes. Those proposals got big cheers from the univerity audience, but then so did nearly everything else. His promise to put Social Security and Medicare in a "lock box" earned shouts of approval from several gray-haired supporters, as did his prescription drug benefit plan. And nearly everyone in earshot roared when Gore pledged to "start treating our teachers like the professionals that they are" and to keep tax cuts from benefiting the undeserving rich.
Even the old, stiff Gore might have done just fine with this bunch. Maryland is an overwhelmingly Democratic state, with 58 percent of its citizens identifying themselves with that party, compared to only 30 percent sworn Republicans. The state's two senators, Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, are old-fashioned New Dealers who've held their offices for 24 and 16 years respectively, without much of a challenge, and there hasn't been a Republican governor since 1966.
But convention-fresh Gore wasn't resting on the Clinton administration's laurels, or lapsing into his pre-convention bad habits. His style was easy, his movements almost fluid, and he spoke emphatically without slipping into his trademark cartoonish "I feel really passionate" growl. He sounded lively, even when he was repeating -- nearly word for word -- parts of his nomination acceptance speech.
"I won't be the most exciting politician," Gore said, nearing the end of his remarks. "But I'll work hard for you every day." Quite predictably, he received a rocking standing O at the end, and waded into the crowd for 10 minutes, shaking hands and smiling.
Though the rally was largely a love fest, a couple of nonbelievers made themselves heard during Gore's speech, but they just galvanized the pro-Gore bunch.
Half a dozen pro-gun, pro-voucher, anti-Democrat outbursts from a blue-shirted heckler drew hisses and censorious looks from all around. As the event wore on, those surrounding him learned to drown out his boos with the force of their cheers, and several people confronted him after Gore's speech concluded.
A dreadlocked young man who chided Gore about America's record prison population was stared down and confined most of his sign-waving to after the event. And Nader supporters, such as Dave Goldsmith of Baltimore, didn't hear Gore say the one thing that really mattered: that Nader would be allowed to join the debates. "Without Nader, those debates will turn into infomercials," said Goldsmith.
Other critics who came to rally against Gore found themselves shut out entirely. "I couldn't hear any of it," said Mike Cissel, one of a handful of Bush volunteers roaming the sidewalk. What he did hear, he didn't like. "It sounded like a carbon copy of his convention speech, which was very general," Cissel said. The loud and repeated cheers notwithstanding, he hoped to bring over some of the audience to the Bush camp. "There's still a lot of doubters here," he declared. Where?