Sleepless in Philadelphia

A tired Al Gore suffers a failure of charisma as he tries to mobilize the base.

Published November 6, 2000 8:22PM (EST)

On the Sunday before Election Day, in front of a loyal and crucial constituency, Al Gore just didn't have it. Star power, magnetism, whatever magic draws people in: The vice president lacks it in most situations. Though he had a touch of it in Memphis, Tenn., on Saturday, he missed it entirely on this crucial Sunday in Philadelphia. Gore picked up a point or two in the polls over the weekend, but he couldn't key up Keystone State voters, not even those in his political base.

With 48 hours to go, Gore is still deadlocked with George W. Bush in Pennsylvania, trailing by two points in the latest Reuters/Zogby poll. Just over a month ago, the state had been crossed off Bush's probable list, with Gore floating on a double-digit lead. But that evaporated during the debates, and the vice president has spent plenty of time in the state over the last two weeks, trying to get it back.

He's not going to do it with the kind of performance he turned in on Sunday, when Gore's charisma deficit was on full display in his morning rounds in the city. His first stop was Mount Carmel Baptist Church, located in a neighborhood clearly on the borderline between survival and misery, the perfect setting for a populist charge. But Gore couldn't quite plant his flag, even in friendly territory.

The vice president spoke at the 8 o'clock service, but considering that his previous campaign day had ended at 2 a.m., he should have considered sleeping in. Seeming exhausted, he stumbled through his remarks, pausing more than once to find his place. He listed the accomplishments of the Clinton administration like an uncertain waiter listing the specials of the day. "We have the most diverse ... self-government in the history ... of our nation," he stammered, and he mentioned that "we now have the lowest African-American unemployment in the history of the United States" without a hint of verve. The surging surplus, the tripling stock market, the raised standard of living: They all ran together in the tuneless hum of Gore's speech.

The church members applauded the policy lines cordially, but the clapping never rose to a point where it interrupted the droning cadence. The joking and the playfulness he displayed at a Saturday prayer breakfast in Memphis were gone entirely, and his Bible references -- retreads all -- were delivered in a spiritless voice.

A few things got the crowd's attention. Gore's promise of tax-deductible college tuition drew rousing applause, and the call to "treat teachers like the professionals they are" was a hit as well, though most of those who leapt to their feet were in a group of local pols in the front pews. Apparently they had been on the side of the unions in the recent city teacher's strike.

Eventually, he did get to the point -- begging and pleading with the congregation to get to the polls. "This election comes down to a very few states," Gore said. "I need your help on Tuesday."

But he needed help before that, help thinking through his priorities. According to most polls, Gore can count on nine out of every 10 black votes going to him; what he needs to do is inspire black voters to turn out in high numbers. And so far he has failed to do so. Albert Campbell, the pastor of the church, seemed to acknowlege as much when he spoke after the vice president. "The Democrats at their worst are better than that other party at their best," he said. That must be pretty damn bad.

Gore recovered somewhat in his next stop at the Melrose Diner, a few blocks down the road from Mount Carmel. There, he got a much-needed cup of coffee, pressed the flesh, flipped some eggs and talked on more than one cellphone handed to him by bemused patrons.

One of them was Ed Kilgore, who beamed as the vice president chatted with some of his friends. "He's great," said Kilgore, who is apparently that rare kind of voter who credits Gore with having a hand in the nation's prosperity -- though not a particularly big hand. "The economy's great, business is great, everything has been going great for eight years now. He's been there eight years and knows a little bit about what's going on."

That "little bit" went a long way for Kilgore, but it hasn't for the majority of American voters. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 46 percent of the public thinks Gore is the best candidate to keep the prosperity going.

Other voters remain wary of his reputation as a panderer. Pete Roman and Tim McMullin, who had stopped en route to a football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys, were the first patrons to pose with the vice president for a picture. Borrowing a page from the Hillary Rodham Clinton playbook, Gore smiled and offered the Eagles his good wishes. "I'm rooting for them to beat Dallas," he said.

Moments later, with the vice president just a few yards away, the duo snickered about the encounter and voiced their doubts about Gore's affection for their home team. "He's just saying that to get our votes," Roman sneered. Added McMullin, "If he were in Texas, he'd be a Cowboy fan."

Besides the closet Gore haters, there were also several of those famous undecided voters to connect with. An elderly couple who also got face time with Gore said he was personable, but remained on the fence. "We're still undecided," said Betty Angelo. She and her husband, Joe, cited Social Security as their top concern, yet neither one could articulate the much-discussed differences between the candidates' proposals for the program. "They're pretty much the same," Joe Angelo said.

After a little prodding, Joe Angelo stuck to his undecided guns, but his wife voiced a preference. "I think I'm leaning toward Bush," she said.

Apparently unsatisfied with wreaking havoc on the breakfast shift at Melrose, Gore made a quick stop at the Broad Street Diner, shook a few hands and then traveled over to Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he left the fire and brimstone at the door. "I'm asking not only for your vote but for your enthusiasm," he said.

In the end, he finally got enthusiasm, from a highly partisan crowd at Philadelphia's Memorial Park. There he got as loose as he would during his swing through the City of Brotherly Love, stripping off his jacket, pumping his fist into the air to the delight of his screaming fans. But it was easy for him to warm up an audience that was already hot. In the last two days he'll need to light a fire under voters he has previously left cold.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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