Parting Shot: I, Undecided

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Al Gore is on a boat, and I have fled up the coast to Santa Barbara, figuring the best way to clear my head in a hurry was to get out of L.A. and onto neutral ground. It's working a little too well — the Democratic convention is quickly receding into a small box in my memory, and in my fatigued and malnourished state I sometimes think I dreamed the whole thing. On Monday, the newsmagazine covers will feature non-political faces again. Tiger Woods will have won the PGA Championship again. And the only thing left over from Los Angeles will be some souvenir press passes, a few cases of lingering jet lag and an indication of Gore's bounce, or lack of it, to be gleaned from the Sunday night polls.

This much I remember:

Al Gore doesn't seem so bad. In the afterglow of Philadelphia, he'd seemed stale, small and eminently unelectable; two weeks later, with Joe Lieberman and a meaty acceptance speech under his belt, Gore and his adequately presented laundry list of presidential priorities seem to have a shot at properly benefiting from a stay-the-course mindset in this prosperous age. Bush may be the unknown again now — he's left Gore room to cast him as a smiling face with a dark reactionary soul, whereas Gore, however disconcerting his sudden bust of fighting populism may be to the satisfied corporate-employed swing vote, has at least set definite limits to his crusade.

You guessed it — I've bounced. Not all the way, mind you (four years of Gore as the televised face of the nation is still a daunting thought), but my internal race has tightened again.

Campaign finance reform is my favorite issue. If this former solicitor-in-chief can somehow convince me of his sincerity, that will go a long way. (Certainly there is no competition from Bush to be the president who gets McCain-Feingold through the McConnell roadblock.) Likewise the environment, where Gore's sincerity is unquestioned but his ability to effect real change is questionable. The corporation-bashing is a turn-off —this economy wouldn't have boomed much without big business — but then again, corporations are quite able to take care of themselves.

Gore has also grabbed the lead on what may well turn out to be the last-word issue of this campaign: the budget. There is no surplus, folks, and the first politician to say that aloud will have my everlasting respect. But Gore is promising to keep the budget balanced and pay down the debt, and that's Alan Greenspan's favorite issue, which is good enough for me. Bush's numbers don't add up — this is where John Kasich would have come in handy as a running mate — and if they still don't, he'll lose me in November, along with a lot of other people who see the relative fiscal discipline of the Clinton years as the catalyst behind this durable boom.

So who is the swing vote, anyway? (Besides soccer moms, I mean.) Gore seems convinced it's the blue-collar class, and he's aiming right at them. The Bush camp envisions an "investor class" that believes in capitalism's invisible hand sufficiently to bet on both Social Security privatization and school vouchers. This would seem to give Bush an edge with disengaged types who consider federal government largely irrelevant — but don't be so sure. Gore has an in with them too.

All in the name of research, I decided to muster up one more night of sleep deprivation and take a sample of my demographic near-peers in Santa Barbara bustling college-bar scene. Politics, let's just say, is not a popular topic of conversation. A gaggle of women I approached clearly thought I was some kind of stalker. The conventions? Yeah, right. No, we didn't watch, and get away from us, you weirdo. Those who took me seriously, however, suggested that Clinton fatigue will not be much of a problem for the vice president.

"Guy's getting oral sex in the Oval Office? Doesn't bother me," said Raymond Mora, a 26-year-old Hispanic who was doing well enough in life to be in the latter stages of a bar-hop that encompassed most of California and Nevada. "How's the country running? Fine, right? That's all I care about." This was a guy whose admitted only impression of the Gore convention was that Rage Against the Machine had been ill-served by the L.A. police, and he had absolutely no problem with a Gore presidency. "Under Clinton, the economy's great. Might as well be the guy who learned under him."

Gore's got a chance, all right — with anybody who's achieved some financial status in this status quo. And that's a lot of people. Except that I'd swear on my mother's Cisco shares that Raymod Mora wasn't headed to the polls at all in November.

A satisfied voter might well be a Gore voter. So might be an apathetic one. But not if they're too satisfied or apathetic to bother voting at all. Gore is fond of saying that the presidency isn't a popularity contest. Except that it is one, by definition, and not just over numbers, but over excitement levels. And when it comes to putting new faces in the voting booths, Al Gore is no John McCain, and neither is George W. Bush. The parties' respective bases will still have to do the heavy lifting.

You don't need to be disengaged to be bouncing. Having been at ground zero for both parties' summer sales event, I'm beginning to feel like a tennis ball. If next week's polls show Gore's pulled even, then I'll know I'm not alone in feeling that the ball's in Bush's court now. But if W. can shore up a few nagging questions, he could still put this thing away. What Gore did this week is define his plans, down to the last new cop on the street, and make himself a viable alternative to change.

If anybody besides me saw him do it.