Gore: Where Is The Love?

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There's an old parlor game, a kind of gut check for the heart and head. Would you rather be rich or pretty? Happy or famous? Is it better to be good or to be smart? For a while this race looked like a clean choice, more government or lower taxes, the Tin Man or the Scarecrow, the teacher's pet or the class clown. But with each freshly deadlocked poll, it is looking less like a clear choice than a hard one. And last week it became a real one as well, when voters finally got to watch Al Gore and George W. Bush, naked on the same stage, and come to grips with what it would mean to choose between them.

It's way too late to fall in love; the race from here out is a fight for the last 10%, the hardheaded, ticket-splitting late-deciding swing voters who may be the least likely to make an emotional decision but seem to have trouble making a pragmatic one either. Last week, when the two men met at last, Hot Lips Gore was not inviting the voters out on a date; he called it a "job interview" and set out to show why he was the more qualified to lead, even if that meant behaving like a bully. The good news for Gore was that most people thought he won. A majority, according to a new TIME/CNN poll, agree with him on everything from education to Social Security to Medicare. The bad news is that they are no more likely to vote for him than before — and maybe even less.

The TIME/CNN poll of likely voters gave Bush a two-point advantage, 47% to 45%, a statistical dead heat, after weeks when Gore looked as if he was cementing at least a narrow lead in most polls. In a race so tight, the debate was supposed to start shoving undecided voters into one camp or the other. "We thought it was going to come down to one debate," said retiring Ohio Republican John Kasich. "It turns out all three are going to be important."

On the one hand, there was Bush looking small and scared, lost in his own constructions and unable to fill the allotted time, wrapped in his learned lines like a soft blanket. Some of what he said made little sense; some was flatly wrong, like charging that Gore had "outspent him" in this election. And yet some viewers found themselves rooting for him to hang in there. The other guy was better prepared and better spoken but profoundly annoying as well, starting with the orange finger paint over his Florida tan, a mixture that made him look as if he should be skinned and turned into a Coach bag. He talked too much and smiled too much and sighed too much, and was so in control of his material that he turned his proposals into a bludgeon; more than a few Americans ran screaming from the room at the thought of four years of him.

Even faithful Democrats felt their teeth itching. "I found myself saying, 'Just don't say anything, Al," said Ohio Congressman Ted Strickland. "I don't think he has to try to win every point and cram in every bit of information about every subject. The issues favor my party and my candidate, and because of that it's a little disconcerting that a good argument, a good debate point, would be diminished by the way it's presented."

In fact there were those who said Bush won by not losing; that the mere fact he is in this race at all, when every historical measure says he should be down about 20 points, signals some fundamental problem with Gore that represents Bush's best hope for victory. Above all, the debate seems to have reinforced questions about Gore's credibility: in the TIME/CNN poll, more than half of likely voters think Gore "changes his mind too often on important issues just to win votes," whereas only 34% feel this way about Bush. Sixty percent think Gore would say anything to get elected President. What good does it do to have people agree with you on most issues if they can't decide whether they believe you? "Bush held his own, which was good," says a senior Bush aide. "But Gore did more damage to himself than we did to him."

The day after the debate, Gore spokesman Chris Lehane was having to answer charges that Gore won because he cheated. The very first words out of his mouth, that he had never questioned Bush's experience, only his proposals, was demonstrably untrue, and the Republicans had the clips to prove it. That bit about visiting the Texas disaster site with FEMA Director James Lee Witt? Gore himself admitted he was wrong the next morning.

Bush advisers were already feeding him gently self-mocking lines for this week, like "I may mangle my words, but I've never mangled the truth." The issue of Gore's complex relationship with the facts dates back to well before this election cycle, long before he'd ever said anything about Love Canal or the Internet. During his first presidential run in 1988, his own staff warned him about hurting his image by stretching the truth, and "how it may continue to suffer if you continue to go out on a limb with remarks that may be impossible to back up." The response that many of the specific charges are unfair has not made the general issue less sticky. "He did hold the first hearings on Love Canal. He did do more than any other Congressman to bring us the Internet," complains a Gore senior adviser. "People have taken some misstatements and turned them into something mythic."

To the Bush campaign, this felt like Christmas. Bush has been desperate to run on the subject of Gore's character but had trouble finding a way to do it that didn't sound whiny or snide. Once Gore successfully amputated Bill Clinton and moved the debate toward the issues, Bush's character attacks actually began to backfire. Bush returned to the sunny side of the street on Oprah and helped stop his slide; now he's hoping Gore will help him even further. If Gore's demeanor makes it hard for him to make an emotional connection, the exaggeration interferes with the intellectual one as well. Every time Gore embellishes his story about his dog's pharmacy bill, it becomes just a little harder to slam Bush for leaving people out of his prescription-drug program or favoring the rich at everyone else's expense. Voters may wonder whether Gore is playing fair, and they may not have the time to scour websites and analyze policy for themselves.

The problem of building a campaign around character, however, is that the past decade has provided serial lessons in its futility. Voters were prepared to overlook Clinton's transgressions in Arkansas in 1992, overlook Whitewater and Paula Jones and Johnny Chung in 1996, look past even Monica in the midterm elections of 1998. They may think Gore shades the truth, but it also may not ultimately matter. Fifty-four percent of likely voters say Gore is "honest and trustworthy enough to be President." That is 13 points lower than Bush. The question, Is it high enough to win? It is if voters have come to think that honesty is an optional quality in a President, if after living through the Clinton presidency they are not looking to fall in love. This is a little more like looking for a new dentist. At least that's what the Democrats hope.

It's not that Gore didn't try to make people like him. He tested new pickup lines and spruced up his wardrobe and shared warm stories about his family. At the Democratic Convention, his team shoved him back into the race by making him as human as was humanly possible: one long kiss, a bright blond daughter, a speech flavored more by its conviction than its condescension. But even Gore strategist Carter Eskew thinks the whole "likability" question is "another sort of pundit myth," comparable to the charge that Bush doesn't have the "gravitas" to be President. "The question is, What is decisive in people's vote?" Eskew says. "That is a harder question, and if I had the answer to that, we could all go home."

Maybe voters don't actually have to want to invite the candidate over for dinner, so long as they can make some kind of human connection. When it came to that type of empathy, Bill Clinton had wires shooting out in all directions: he knew what it was like to be from the wrong side of the tracks, what it was like to be the fat kid. He knew what it was like to have problems with his wife, and to be fired in a public and humiliating way. Bush has talked about what prompted him to lock the liquor cabinet when he turned 40. Gore may have lost his sister to cancer and almost lost his son to a car accident, but he rarely comes across as vulnerable. He's still the hard-working student once trotted out by his parents to please the grownup guests. It's harder to identify with the good son than with the black sheep, even though Gore's lack of affect may be the most genuine thing about him.

For Bush, says Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley, "the bar gets raised for him at each debate. The bar was as low as it could be the first one. O.K., he can deal with this. Now, let's see if he gets better — not just better with being more likable but better with some substance." Republican pollster David Winston says Gore faces the same dynamic. Unless he does something dramatic, he may simply get more grating with more exposure. "I'm not sure Gore has any place to go either," Winston says. "With each debate, you are going to go deeper into the dynamics of the race." Which is, in the end, something more than a job interview. "They're hiring somebody," Winston says of the voters, "but they also want to be able to tolerate him."

— Reported by John F. Dickerson, Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty/Washington, James Carney with Bush, and Tamala M. Edwards with Gore