Vice President Al Gore's Thursday started with some machismo -- he told rap star Queen Latifah about the days of his youth spent tooling around on a motorcycle wearing a leather vest. Thus, the Democratic nominee's fiery 45-minute stemwinder outside the Wisconsin Statehouse that evening -- to a cheering crowd that the Madison Police Department estimated at around 30,000 -- fit in well with the unofficial theme for the day. But danger lurked on the horizon, and just as Gore told Latifah that "I look back on those days [speeding on his motorcycle] and I feel like I'm very lucky to have survived," elements of Gore's speech indicated he knows his ride to the White House could be felled by just a well-placed pebble in his path.
That pebble would be the candidacy of Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, whom Gore mentioned by name for the first time ever in a speech in Madison -- an explicit acknowledgment that the earnest consumer advocate poses a serious threat to his presidential chances. Gore conjured forth a starker picture than perhaps ever before of the evil "special interests" allied with Gov. George W. Bush, and made his most direct appeal to date to Nader's supporters. He attempted to justify his New Democrat fiscal responsibility by explaining that within him, at least, such prudence springs from lefty idealism. But he painted Nader as an unwitting accomplice of a larger corporate conspiracy to siphon votes from him and elect Bush.
By threatening to peel off significant numbers of left-leaning voters in certain key battlegrounds, Nader is threatening to hand Bush a victory. Like, say, in Oregon, where according to a Wednesday poll by American Research Group, Bush has 45 percent, Gore 41 percent and Nader 10 percent. Similar problems are brewing in Washington, Minnesota, Maine, Michigan and, of course, here in Wisconsin -- a state won by Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. On top of that, Bush's poll numbers are trending up in several national surveys.
In fact, a Republican group is launching TV ads featuring Nader attacking the vice president. The ads by the Republican Leadership Council will begin airing Monday in Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington.
Thus, this week's emergence of Alpha Gore, who appears whenever the veep's in the midst of a cutthroat competition, usually when he seems to be in trouble.
The first and last time I heard Gore say "I guaran-damn-tee it" -- as he did Thursday night -- was right before the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa last fall, on one of the first days of his hyperaggressive campaign to remove the lungs, spleen and lower intestines from his then-strong challenger, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. The term has cropped up a few times in his stump speeches in the past month, but its more frequent use -- the fact that this was the second time in a week that he utilized the colloquialism -- usually means that within the beast, the testosterone's flowing.
And flowing it needs to be, with only 12 days left in the presidential race. This is the moment Gore's been waiting for -- was groomed for -- his entire life. Monday through Thursday marked the first decent four-day stretch Gore's had since his post-convention bounce, and it couldn't come soon enough for the embattled Democrat, threatened as he is in some states by Nader, as well as in general by Bush, who amped up his attacks against Gore earlier Thursday in a long, negative speech that culminated with Bush promising to "change the tone" in Washington.
Gore's second stop of the day was an Iowa taping of the "Queen Latifah Show," where he told the talk show host -- in an episode to air Wednesday -- that he "had a leather vest. I used to have a motorcycle years ago. I had a leather vest when I [rode] the motorcycle ... I used to really enjoy [riding] that motorcycle. Tipper and I would go everywhere on it."
Gore wasn't sporting any leather later in the day, at the packed Madison rally, but he had his wild man vibe going. Introduced by Brad Whitford from "The West Wing," and his second oldest daughter, Kristin, Gore reveled in the huge audience, later telling CBS's Milwaukee affiliate, WDJT, "This was the single most successful appearance that any candidate has had in the year 2000, and I owe it all to Madison."
But Gore has Madison to thank -- or blame -- for more than just a great event. In his speech, Gore said that his family's liberal proclivities came from the city.
"Some of the lessons that I learned about what works and what's right came indirectly to me as a child from Madison, Wisconsin," he said.
"Lemme explain," Gore told the crowd.
His mother, Pauline LaFon, worked her way through college, and then became one of the first women to attend Vanderbilt Law School. "She came here one summer to the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison," Gore said to cheers, "and it had a tremendous impact on her ... She always told my sister and me about Madison, and about Wisconsin."
Then Gore's father, Albert Gore Sr., a former schoolteacher elected Tennessee minister of labor, "came to Madison to learn about the history of making workers' compensations laws that was passed here in Wisconsin before it existed anywhere else in the United States. And he went back to institute a lot of the progressive ideas that he and my mother had learned in, in this great city."
The great liberal Daddy Gore was eventually defeated because he supported civil rights and opposed the war in Vietnam, he said (somehow failing to mention his father's vote against the Civil Rights Act). In any case, "he was defeated for reelection because he had the courage of his principles," Gore said. "That is what Madison has always stood for. Principles! And courage! And progressive politics!"
And not getting elected?
With that perhaps in mind, Gore began selling himself as the only true heir to Wisconsin's "progressive" tradition and worthy of lefty Nader voters -- from his days as a student, a Vietnam vet, an observer of Watergate, the son of a defeated senator father, "probably the most disillusioned person that you have ever seen."
From the very beginning of his service in the U.S. House 24 years ago, he said, he's been "fighting for working men and women, and against the special interests when necessary." His allowance that his fight has been "when necessary" was the last time that he allowed the crowd an undefended glimmer of the compromising soul that Nader loves to bash.
The next president may pick up to four Supreme Court justices, he said, who will "interpret our constitutional rights for the next 30-40 years. Young people in this audience will have children who are your age, and have children of their own, living under interpretations of the Constitution shaped and determined by the presidential election just 12 days from now," he said rather confusingly. "Think about it! Women's rights are at stake! Disability rights are at stake! Civil rights are at stake, labor rights are at stake, individual rights are at stake, federalism is at stake!"
"Think long and hard about it!" he admonished.
Those who argue that it doesn't make a difference whether Bush or Gore picks the next few Supreme Court justices are dead wrong, Gore said, "for those whose life and lives are on the line" such an attitude "is a luxury of indifference and ironic detachment and cynicism that they cannot afford!"
Gore laid out his traditional speech, blasting Bush's proposed tax cut for the wealthy while also promising to balance the budget and pay down the debt -- but he explained to the crowd why such New Democracy fiscal discipline was important.
"I'll balance the budget every year," Gore said, "not because it makes for a nice slogan! But because we have learned that progressive priorities fare better when we balance the budget and keep interest rates low ... In the past, there has been the temptation for those of us with progressive values to think that if you didn't overpromise, if you weren't willing to just throw caution to the wind and bust the budget, then you weren't willing to throw your whole heart into a particular challenge."
"But we've learned better than that!" Gore said. "Because when we demonstrate -- and people with progressive values -- that we can manage the government, keep it focused on the essential tasks, not waste money and actually do what we set out to do, then we redeem the promise of representative democracy and rekindle the spirit of America and make our country what it should be!!!"
Telling the crowd about the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which concludes that temperatures will rise by up to 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century if greenhouse gases are not curtailed, Gore slammed Bush as a polluter and touted himself as Eco-Man. "For 24 years, I have never backed down or given up on the environment, and I never will in my whole life!" Gore bellowed.
"I guaran-damn-tee it!"
Gore then made like a kind of Nader figure himself, one man against the world. And in doing so, he mentioned Nader for the first time as a tool in a vast conspiracy against him. The mention came just hours after Gore had told an Iowa TV station that the whole "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush" argument is one that he himself wouldn't want to emphasize.
"The big polluters, the big oil companies, the chemical manufacturers, they are goin' AWWLLL OUT to try to defeat me and my agenda!" Gore said. "They are going all out -- and let me tell ya what they would like to say to you in Wisconsin. If the big oil companies and the chemical manufacturers and the other big polluters were able to communicate a message to this state, they would say: 'Vote for George Bush OORRR'" -- pause -- "'in any case, vote for Ralph Nader.'"
BOOOOOO! went the crowd. They were booing Nader, not Gore. The Nader supporters booing Gore were cordoned off blocks away.
These big polluters, Gore said, were they to convene and plot Election 2000, "would say, 'Whatever you do, don't vote for Al Gore, because he's the one that we know has 24 years of experience, a burning passion in his heart to solve this problem!' That's why I'm ASKING for your support! I need your help, Wisconsin!!!"
Gore laid out other bad guys -- "big drug companies," "big insurance companies and HMOs" and other allies of Bush taken right from a succession of John Grisham novels.
And Gore laid out their evil plots, taking a cue from his fellow Tennessee Democrats' predilection for melodrama.
"It is morally wrong for your doctor who has gone t' medical skewl, and had an internship at a hospital, and gained experience, and cares about your health, and has examined you, and knows what's in your best interests, and he gives you a recommendation, it is morally wrong for his or her recommendation to be overruled by some young bean counter behind a computer terminal at an HMO, who doesn't have a license to practice medicine and should not have the right to play God!"
"You KNOW it's wrong!" Gore shouted, decrying the failure of the patients bill of rights to pass Congress. But the "big HMOs and insurance companies have a hammerlock on too many of the politicians with their contributions!!!" Gore sneered.
"And that's why we need [Sen.] Russ Feingold's campaign finance reform bill," Gore said, referring to the lesser known (and less cited, especially by Gore) Wisconsin Democrat who paired up with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to offer a Senate bill to ban soft money. Gore has pledged to send the McCain-Feingold bill up as his first piece of legislation, and he repeated the pledge Thursday.
"And when I send it to the Congress it won't be a symbolic act!!!" Gore said. "I'll faight like HEYLL for it!!" Gore said he'd do the same thing for a prescription drug benefit for seniors. "I will flat make it happen!" he said. "I will expose what the opponents are doing."
"But listen," Gore said, winding down, "it's up to you. Because these special interests have way too much power. And they are hoping that you will either vote for George Bush, ORRR" -- pause -- "cast your vote in a way that will not affect the outcome," he said, reverting back to the candidate who never heard of Nader.
"Here's what it comes down to, my friends: Once every four years, the people of this nation have a fleeting opportunity for ONE DAY to speak more loudly and decisively than AWWLL of the special interests put together. There's ONE DAY when you have the power, when you have the opportunity. And lemme tell you, the special interests FEAR that day!
"They TREMBLE at the THOUGHT that you will somehow SHAKE OFF the efforts to CONFEWSE YOU!
"They are FEARFUL that somehow their MILLIONS of DOLLARS of campaign advertising designed to FUUHZZ UHP all the ISSUES won't work!
"They TREMBLE that you will somehow PENETRATE to the real issues and make use of the power that our Founders who gave us our freedom, who wrote our Constitution, gave you 224 years ago.
"THAT DAY IS 12 DAYS FROM TODAY! NOVEMBER 7TH! I NEED YOUR HELP!!!"