Backstage at the Town Hall

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Tuesday Al Gore came to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for a youth forum with MTV and TIME. While the veep has taken to dressing down, he didn't totally go Joe College. Instead he looked like a dad who'd shown up early for Parent's Weekend, dressed in khakis, a green button down and tie-up shoes (but sans Palm Pilot).

Gore's daughter, 27-year-old Karenna Gore Schiff, also attended with her husband, Drew. Schiff likes to downplay her influence, making like a daughter who just wants to be there to support Dad. But the truth is she's hawk-eyed about every detail. Before Gore was to go out, the MTV team did a few one-on-ones with him in a hallway for other shows. MTV correspondent John Norris started to position Gore for a Q&A for the hit music countdown show "Total Request Live." As he did, Schiff, in black pants, red tank top and black-and-white sheer overshirt, stepped out of the dressing room. Her eyes popped as she saw the camera light go on and she made a beeline for an MTV staffer. Did we know about this? What's the question? she demanded. Assured that it was just an innocuous query on music — and one the Gore team knew about beforehand — Schiff relaxed and leaned against a wall to watch her dad "spontaneously" perform.

Gore headed into the studio. If he was nervous, that probably evaporated with the whistles and applause that greeted him. And Gore immediately moved to make the terrain his own, going through every section, shaking about 175 hands. Zach, a kid who I knew was waiting to ask Gore an impertinent entertainment question — doesn't all this bellyaching about music artists only make their record sales surge? — turned to me after Gore had gone by. "He's like a real person," he said, nodding his head, impressed. And there it was, one of the strangest things about the trail: Repeatedly the smallest thing — a nod, a hello, a handshake — blows people away. For all my time on the trail, I still don't understand the "I touched the hem of his garment!" reaction people have to politicians....

There's pandemonium in the pressroom, which was outside of the studio. Gore decided to take questions from kids during the breaks (another action that won him fans), and there was no audio feed to the reporters who travel around with him, and the reporters were not amused. But they should chill. The questions were similar to the ones Gore's been asked before and his answers were largely the same. Instead, the intriguing moments were the small things: A kid must have put out an arm for the veep's autograph. "I'm sorry. I don't sign skin," I heard Gore apologize. Who knew?

But by and large, the kids were sharp and their questions were good, often putting a personal edge to queries. They were well-spoken and polite. And the MTV team did a crack job choreographing the whole act, focusing on getting smart, tight questions up to the veep and making the forum serious. But that reportedly was also a disappointment to some in the pressroom as well. An MTV staffer told the story of a local Michigan reporter who'd had the body of his story written, leaving open just his lead, which he thought would be a frivolous kiddy question. As the forum ended he howled, "Where's boxers or briefs?" referring to the infamous impertinent softball lobbed at Clinton in 1992. But it seems the kids, like the rest of the country, are looking forward to the post-Clinton era, when presidential politics might finally go back to being brainy rather than below the belt.