That is the single most important question that the Democratic Party candidate for the U.S. presidency must answer in the months ahead. What is most troubling for Mr. Gore and his party is that, despite his 24 years of public service as a congressman, senator, vice president and two-time presidential candidate, the public does not seem to have a ready answer. Mr. Gore must provide one soon if he is going to have a chance in the November ballot.
The Democratic Party concluded its four-day Los Angeles love fest with the most important speech of Mr. Gore’s political career. After securing the nomination in an uncontested roll-call vote, he took the stage to define himself, his image and his vision for the future. It called for a delicate balance.
Mr. Gore is pulled in two directions. He wants a share of the credit for his country’s unprecedented economic expansion, yet he must look firmly to the future. He wants to tap the charisma of President Bill Clinton — whose popularity among the party faithful is undiminished — but he must distance himself from the president’s character flaws. He must appeal to the Democratic Party’s traditional base of support, while reaching out to the moderates and undecided voters who will determine the winner in November.
Finally, Mr. Gore must shed his image as a cold, pedantic politician and become a feeling human being. That is why speaker after speaker, from his daughter Mrs. Karenna Gore Schiff to his Harvard roommate, actor Mr. Tommy Lee Jones, took to the podium in Los Angeles this week to speak about “the Al Gore the world does not know.” At the same time, however, this makeover cannot be seen as too calculated or it will only confirm him as a politician ready to do anything to win.
In his acceptance speech Thursday night, Mr. Gore vowed to be “my own man” and promised “to turn the page and write a new chapter.” He had already begun to do just that with his selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. The choice represented a bold stroke. A solid, thoughtful and articulate politician, Mr. Lieberman appeals to the centrists whose votes the Democrats must win. As the first ranking Democrat to condemn Mr. Clinton’s behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he provides the Gore campaign with a much-needed ethical foundation. And as the first Orthodox Jew to serve on a national ticket, his selection shows Mr. Gore’s willingness to make risky decisions.
But victory in November will depend on far more than that. Mr. Gore must connect with voters. He has his work cut out for him. Most public opinion polls show him trailing Republican nominee Texas Gov. George W. Bush by at least 10 percentage points. The Democrats will get a bounce from the convention, but the two men will have to be running almost even for Mr. Gore to be able to run his kind of campaign instead of being forced to respond to Mr. Bush.
According to most reports, Mr. Gore’s speech was a success. Even GOP pollsters acknowledged that he connected with loyal Democrats and undecided voters. But in a reminder of the difficulties that lie ahead, Mr. Gore’s convention highlight was overshadowed by news, leaked earlier in the day, that a federal grand jury had been impaneled to investigate whether Mr. Clinton should be indicted on criminal charges arising from the Lewinsky investigation. While both campaigns decried the timing of the announcement, the truth is the character question will be ever-present in this election.
Mr. Gore’s plan is to force the debate onto his terrain: the issues. The Democrats will argue that the Republicans are recent converts to centrism — and not at all committed. There is little doubt that Mr. Gore’s mastery of the intricacies of policy issues is not matched by Mr. Bush. His task is to convince voters that that matters.
In other words, Mr. Gore must focus on issues. He must demand that his opponent spell out his positions and then explain to the American people how his policies are different, and what that means. That would serve Mr. Gore’s candidacy and his country best. The United States needs a real debate about its future. The country is too large and too powerful for it to assume what must be proven. By being forced to define himself, Mr. Gore is forced to define his candidacy. If Americans are to choose well in November, they must understand what they are being asked to choose between. Mr. Gore has begun the crucial task of self-definition this week. The world is about to find out who Al Gore really is.
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