No, no, and a thousand times no! Al Gore and his minions had absolutely nothing to do with the last minute revelations that George W. Bush was once arrested for driving under the influence. Honest, they swear. Just listen to them.
Almost immediately after the news broke of Bush's 1976 arrest in Maine for drunken-driving, the Texas governor's campaign switched quickly from weeping and regret to finger-pointing. Communications chief Karen Hughes, spokesman Ari Fleischer and even the governor himself called the timing of the arrest reports release "very interesting." Bush operatives were pointing out Friday that the Maine attorney who reportedly leaked Bush's arrest report was a delegate to this year's Democratic Convention. With that, the Bush team encouraged the media to draw its own conclusions about the part that Gore, the legendarily tough campaigner, played in the matter.
That was all Gore's forces needed to spend Friday vigorously defending their man's honor. Campaign spokesman Chris Lehane repeatedly denied the hints that Gore played any part in planting the story. The tone of other Gore team members bordered on moral outrage. "The Bush campaign and its surrogates continue to suggest that the Gore campaign is somehow responsible for the recent disclosures about Governor Bush," read a statement by Gore campaign chairman William Daley. "This charge is wrong."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, even suggested Bush's handling of the crisis raised Clintonesque moral questions. Calling the Texas governor's accusations "totally, absolutely false," Harkin suggested Bush's reaction to the story proved that the wrong man had been attacked as the great exaggerator of the campaign. "The issue is one of character, one of honesty and openness," Harkin told reporters after Gore addressed an Iowa State University crowd. Harkin claimed his greatest concern wasn't the DUI charge, "It's about the coverup."
Gore, meanwhile, kept it clean. It was the rare opportunity during this campaign for Gore to play the nice guy, and he left any accusations to his surrogates. The vice president stepped around the two-ton elephant in the room, not mentioning the incident or accusations of dirty campaigning during his time on the stump Friday. Instead, Gore stuck to the script he had used the day before, as if the revelation of Bush's arrest had never happened.
He treated the Iowa State appearance like a pep rally. "Are you ready to win? Are you ready to fight to win?" he growled to heady affirmation from the students. Gore continued to keep his hands clean by recycling his regular stump speech, with its promises to pay down the debt, offers of middle-class tax cuts and proposed financial credits for college tuition. He left most of the snide reactions to the crowd, which was more than happy to supply them. When Gore said "Governor Bush says that we were a lot better off eight years ago," the young audience responded with a chorus of boos.
The dirtiest Gore got during his remarks were repeated taunts over Bush's latest gaffe, this time about Social Security. The vice president parroted back the words Bush had mistakenly told a Missouri audience Thursday when the Texas governor said that Social Security was not a federal program: "Do you want to trust the Oval Office to someone who doesn't even know Social Security is a federal program?"
After rasping through the last bit of his regular routine, Gore left the stage to the sounds of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." That's the attitude he kept later when granting interviews to local television stations. When Gore did let his nasty side slip out to Iowa reporters, he carefully aimed his barb at Bush's Social Security faux pas.
"Four days before the election, and he doesn't know that," Gore said of Bush's mistake. "I think that's outrageous." When the local media hinted at the Bush DUI story, Gore again resisted taking a cheap shot. "I'm not engaged in personal attacks. He is and has been. I'm going to continue to talk about these issues."
The reporters dug deeper and asked Gore whether he had ever been arrested. "No," Gore replied, "absolutely not."
After months of basically conceding character issues to the Bush team, Gore and company are poised to catch Bush in a big time mistake over his drunken-driving debacle. The Republicans' clumsy attack gives Democrats an opportunity to talk about shortcomings in Bush's character, gives Gore the chance to stay on message in the crucial last days of the race and allows the party to label Bush as a negative campaigner -- a divider, not a uniter. Soon the Democrats will know whether Gore has gained the higher ground in the nick of time, or a little too late.