Al Gore: The Turning Point Came in Scranton

In an interview with TIME's Karen Tumulty, the candidate talks about his new campaign slogan, his new campaign manager and how he gets on with Bill Clinton. And, er, those suits.

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It's been a big week for Al Gore. He lost one campaign manager, the combative Tony Coelho, and replaced him with the smoother Bill Daley. Adopting the slogan "Progress and Prosperity," he also changed the focus of his campaign to better remind people of the near-eight bountiful years he has presided in the White House with Bill Clinton. At the end of this busy week, Gore sat down with with TIME Washington correspondent Karen Tumulty, lounging on a wicker chair on the wraparound porch of the VP's official residence in Washington. Birds chirping. Dog Daisy at his feet. He was very relaxed, wearing a loose tan sport shirt, khakis, battered deck shoes.

Q. Can you talk about the week you have just had, and how well you believe your new campaign strategy is working?

A. I think the campaign is hitting on all cylinders. The most important thing is that the big choices that have to be made by the country are coming into clear focus.

Q. So why didn't you do this sooner?

A. It's not as if that's new. There's a certain parsing that goes on when people try to describe campaigns that obscures as much as it reveals. You've heard a lot of my speeches in the last year, and you probably haven't heard a single one that hasn't been dominated by a lengthy discussion of our prosperity and the progress we've made in the last eight years.

What's different about this is that the new estimates of the budget surplus are about to be released, and it really brings into sharp focus not only the success of the last eight years, it's a validation of the basic strategy. It also puts into the sharp focus the big choices we have to make now in order to guarantee prosperity and progress, and the contrast is really quite clear. Governor Bush proposes to spend $1 trillion attempting to privatize Social Security and almost an additional $2 trillion on a huge tax plan that combined with the privatization plan would completely spend even the most expansive surplus estimates and more. And that's before you start adding in the so-called Star Wars proposal and the other big increases in spending that he's called for. So, by contrast, what I am asking the American people to join me in creating is real sustained progress and prosperity.

There's something happening out there. I think people are beginning to look at what is really at stake in our nation's decision on where we go from here. They like this prosperity and progress. They know that we need discipline in our policies in order to continue them. They know that it's unwise to spend money we don't have and put the prosperity and progress in jeopardy.

Q. You have said your earlier strategy of criticizing Governor Bush was a mistake. Why?

A. I think that there was some value to laying out the contrasts, and there will be plenty of chances to return to it before people go to the polls. If there had been no challenge to the idea of privatizing Social Security when it was ventured, it would be more difficult later on to lay out what the real implications are.

Q. So then why was it a mistake?

A. I think that, first of all what I said, I was in an NBC editorial conference. I said it wasn't a big mistake, but I thought it was to not keep the emphasis on the positive message....

Q. Because people still don't know you?

A. Yeah, yeah.

Q. Did you talk to Clinton at all about that?

A. About that? No.

Q. You haven't had any conversations with the President about the need to reframe your message, or the wisdom of the tone that you have taken?

A. No, no, not at all, not at all. I've talked to him about other matters, but not about that.... You know, there are four elements to my relationship with the President, and they are all present.... Number one, we are very good friends, and that's genuine and important to both of us. Number two, the President's personal mistake dismayed me along with all his other friends and most Americans and I condemned that at the time and since. Number three, I'm very proud to have had the chance to work closely with him on behalf of the American people, and we've won a lot of important fights together. Number four, I'm running on my own for president, with my own vision of the future. Now, all four of those elements are present, and if a particular question is focused on one or another facet of the relationship, that doesn't mean I'm lurching from one attitude to another.

Q. Could you describe the conversation in which you asked Bill Daley to take over the campaign?

A. It was just before 11 o'clock when I got through to, when Tony [Coelho] and I talked. He had called me while I was at an event, and then I got back to the hotel and I got the message and we talked for some time, and I called Tipper who was campaigning in Florida and we talked. [Brother-in-law] Frank Hunger was traveling with me and I talked to him before he turned in for the night and then I called Bill. I woke him up.

Q. He was at home?

A. Yeah. And I don't want to reveal too much of the private conversation, but I explained what had happened with Tony's health. I hadn't actually talked to Bill for, I don't know, six or eight weeks. He'd been traveling and so forth. And then I told him that I thought that he was the right person to take over as chairman and that I'd like him to do it. And he took a deep breath and he said, well, I'd like to talk with you about it over a cup of coffee. I said, 'OK, I'll hold the phone; go make some coffee.' And then there was a long silence, not too long, and then he laughed and he said, 'You mean you want to talk now?' And I said, 'Yeah, I'll hold. Make some coffee.' And he laughed, and then we continued to talk for quite a while.

Q. Quite a while being?

A. Forty-five minutes. And he said yes at the end of the conversation, and I thanked him. I called the next morning and when he heard my voice, he started laughing, and said, 'I'm so glad you called, because I had this amazing dream last night, and I just wanted to make sure that it was a dream.'

Q. There were a lot of reports when Tony Coelho came aboard that you had considered Daley back then. Had you offered him the job before?

A. No, I didn't offer him the job. But it was one of those conversations where I might well have offered him the job if the conversation would have taken a different direction. But I did not offer him the job, and he recommended Tony Coelho.

Q. Could you talk about your new retirement savings proposal?

A. The spontaneous reaction was phenomenal. On Tuesday of this coming week, I'll be making the formal presentation of the Social Security Plus plan and on Wednesday, I'll be describing in very clear terms the contrast, the overall Social Security plan that I am proposing along with the new incentives for private savings that we call Social Security Plus, and I'll point out the differences between my plan and Social Security Minus, Governor Bush's plan."

Q. So we'll see you again back to more direct engagement with Governor Bush?

A. Well, it's going to be a positive description of what I want to do, but the comparison doesn't have to be a negative exercise. It's just a clearer presentation of the choice our country has to make. We need to have new incentives to encourage private savings. I've long argued for that. Earlier this year, I said I would be proposing such incentives. The new budget surplus estimates make it possible to have a very meaningful incentive for private savings and private investment. I've always encouraged investments in the stock market, investments in private savings accounts, but they should come on top of the foundation of Social Security. That's why I call it Social Security Plus. The difference is, that Governor Bush proposes to drain $1 trillion out of the Social Security trust fund, which makes this plan Social Security minus."

Q. But doesn't the growing surplus also make it more difficult to make the argument that the economy is all that much at risk?

A. It might if his proposals had not already way, way overshot even the most expansive surplus estimates. By his own numbers, and within the largest estimated surplus, it's way over, and would put the budget right back into deficit, the first year.

Q. Are your polls showing any uneasiness among the public on the economy?

A. I think that there are really two ways of looking at that. I think there's the large trend, which is very positive, and then the wheel within a wheel is measured the smaller ups and downs within the larger positive trends. Does that make sense?

When you look back over the last eight years, the strongest economic expansion in history, you will find periods when some economic analysts said, well this is a period for reassessment of it. I think that overall people are rightly very very positive.

Q. Nothing else that suggests that this is a time to come back hard on the economy and push the message?

A. Other than the new estimates that are coming out? That determined the timing, and again, it's always been a core part of my message. You can go back and listen to any tape recording of any speech that I've made in the last year and a half, at least 30 percent is devoted to that.

Q. Why are the suits back?

A. (Laughs.) The hot weather. Does this look like a suit? I am mystified by the degree of attention given to whether I wear a suit or not some days.

Q. Was there a moment this week when you could feel a new kind of reaction to what you were saying?

A. Scranton.

Q. Tell me what that was like.

A. It was electric. There's something out there. It was like the crowds in July of '92. A lot of fun. A lot of fun. Looking forward to taking this message all over the country. People are excited that the big choices are coming into focus.