Gore on the River: Sleepless in La Crosse

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Outbound from La Crosse, Wis., a few minutes after Al Gore steams away from a nice, rousing start to his "Charting America's Course" riverboat trip, a reminder of what Gore's up against: A cluster of shiny new homes on the Minnesota side of the river, American flags and owners sitting contentedly on the front porch — with homemade "Bush" signs hanging from the railing. Which in a nutshell is the problem — are there enough people unhappy enough with the way things are going to make this election a referendum on issues rather than on whom they like the most? One bad sign: Waiting at a lock in Harpers Ferry, Wis., Gore asks, "Anybody want to ask me a question about the issues?" And nobody does, until a woman asks what he as going to do about Colombia, which probably isn't one of the issues Al had in mind.

Will a populist message play well to all those people who have benefited from the boom of the past eight years? Gore may be saying the right things, but they might not be things that people care about in this 401(k)-owning world. And some of the things Gore talked about last night and again today — raising the minimum wage, for instance — are things that might play better further downriver, in the depressed areas of the Mississippi Delta.

A Good Start: In LaCrosse, an estimated 10,000 (that's the Gore campaign figure; I'd say closer to 8,000, which is still pretty good), some of whom had been there since 4:30 a.m., showed up in Riverfront Park to see their guys. The morning started like too damn many mornings do in the Midwest, overcast with heavy, low dustbunny clouds. A succession of speakers, including a lam faux Mark Twain and a crackling, very real Russ Feingold, warmed up the crowd, and the sun came out right about the time when Gore was supposed to show, and ... nothing. Gore and party were late, a half hour late, and so there was nothing to do but go to the canned music, in this case "Born in the USA," then "Glory Days," then a John Mellencamp medley (does the guy get royalties for this? If so, Gore/Lieberman 2K is making the former Johnny Cougar a very wealthy man), and then I just couldn't stand it anymore.

Neither could the, um, seniors in the crowd. Memo to the Gore planners: Don't put the bleachers, which is where a lot of the older people in the crowd sat, right next to speakers pumping out decibels at an incredible rate. The old folks grimaced and covered their ears, and hoped it would all be over soon.

And then it was; a blessed transition to "Take me to the River" meant that the Gore motorcade was in the park. Enter Joe and Hadassah, followed by Tipper and Al. Hadassah introduces Tipper, who introduces Gore, looking remarkably good for a guy who didn't get much sleep on the overnight flight out (variously described by different Gore folks as one hour, two hours or none). Gore gives the Cliffs Notes version of the L.A. speech, tailored to the locals; so it is that he leads off with his pitch for campaign finance, saying once again that he will work to get McCain-Feingold passed. That gets a good response from the people, who also are happy with preserving Social Security, taking on drug companies over prescription drugs, and protecting the environment.

Still, it's education that plays biggest in Wisconsin; at La Crosse, some hundred NEA members met the Gores' plane when it arrived at 6:15 a.m.; the biggest applause lines were always things like "It's time to treat teachers like the professionals they are."

It's a standard, solid speech; an appeal at the end to "Open your hearts" to politics, to "allow yourselves to believe" is truly moving, and the crowd is moved; looking for all the world like the current POTUS, Gore plunges into the bleachers next to the boat before boarding, shaking every hand there.

The heartfelt mixes with the wonkery on the boat. As we travel, Gore and Lieberman conduct a kind of floating town hall meeting on the boat with selected community members, the traveling press pool and local media. A five-minute stop at Genoa, Wis., allows the candidates to work the rope lines for a second time today, this time with a crowd of about a hundred. We pass Victory, Wis., a place at which the Gore campaign has somehow resisted the temptation to stop.

Hitting the Wall Lansing, Iowa, is where the lack of sleep catches up. Tired Gore staffers nap on deck; we have a "sail-by" of Lansing and it just doesn't work. Al goes onto the top deck (I think this would be the Texas in an old steamboat; this one is pretty faux, though, so I'm not sure if this applies). Al has clearly hit a wall; his jokes are forced. The staff brings Mark Twain back out; he doesn't work any better the second time around, and in fact this is worse; Twain asks for questions, and an embarrassed press corps looks feetward. One guy finally musters a "So who are you endorsing?" (Twain isn't ready to commit), and we are grateful when the boat passes Lansing, where a few hundred people along with the high school band have come down to the shore to watch. The boat slows down, Gore gets on the mike, and his "Hello Lansing" echoes throughout the hills behind the town. But that's the only feedback, the townspeople are too far away and Gore appears, finally, too tired to have something to say. He gives a shout out to the band, which gets cheers, and asks if they know "Rocky Top," which gets nos, and then there's close to a full minute, which feels 100 times as long, where he can say nothing at all, just drift by.

"I need your vote in November," Gore finally calls, and it echoes, and we sail on.