On the scene with Jonathan Karl with the Gore campaign
CNN.com talked with Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl, who is on the campaign trail with Vice President Al Gore less than two weeks before the presidential election. Gore stopped in his home state of Tennessee earlier Wednesday.
Q: What are the main themes Gore is trumpeting in these final weeks?
KARL: Gore is making a series of what he calls the "big choices" facing voters as they go into the voting booths less than two weeks from today. Today's "big choice" outline was on education. In his speech at Tennessee State University in Nashville, Vice President Gore made his sharpest and most detailed attacks yet on Gov. Bush's proposed educational reforms.
First and foremost, the vice president took on Gov. Bush on the issue of accountability. This is very interesting, because Gore in the debates and for quite some time on the campaign trail has said that the one issue he agreed with Bush was on accountability and testing students to hold the schools responsible for how well students were learning. Now, Gore is seizing on a new study by the RAND corporation, which suggests that improvements in Texas education have been superficial because teachers have been preparing students -- not necessarily to learn in a general sense -- to learn how to take a test. Gore seized on that study and said Gov. Bush's claims of educational reforms in Texas are hollow, and that Bush has not held students accountable in Texas.
So, it's kind of a new front in this battle over education.
Q: Gore was campaigning in his home state of Tennessee; that's surprising given the fact the election is two weeks away. Why is he there and not campaigning in other states?
KARL: If you had asked the Gore camp a year ago, if two weeks out from the election, "Would you be campaigning in Tennessee?" They would have said, "You are crazy."
The fact is Gore is fending off a very tough challenge by Gov. Bush here in his home state. This is a state that has trended Republican in recent years. It's a state with a Republican governor and two Republican senators. In some ways, it shouldn't be surprising that the most recent polls show Bush and Gore in a dead heat here in Tennessee.
But Gore does not want to go down in history as the first presidential candidate to lose his home state since George McGovern lost the state of South Dakota in 1972. So the Gore campaign is spending precious time and also precious resources to try to win this state. They still think Tennessee holds their best shot of a pickup in the South, a region that is dominated by Republicans in recent years.
Q: What's the general mood in the Gore camp?
KARL: The mood among Gore's senior aides is sometimes as volatile as the polls we're all watching. The polls have been all over the map. One day, they show Bush with a considerable lead; the next day, they show Gore gaining ground. Everybody out here on the Gore campaign, including his top advisers, really believe that they are in an extremely tight race and this election is going to go down to the very last day. They believe they are going to be in for a long night as they gather in Nashville on election night to watch the returns come in.
The mood among Gore aides is cautiously confident given some recent gains Gore has made in many national polls. But it is very cautiously confident. They certainly don't think they have this election wrapped up by any means. They also don't think that Bush is running away with this thing.
Q: What do they see as Bush's greatest vulnerability?
KARL: They believe Bush's greatest vulnerability is lingering questions over whether or not, with just five years as the governor of Texas, he has the experience or level of knowledge to be president. Gore's aides, his top supporters in Congress and even President Clinton have been out there with this continuous drumbeat questioning whether or not Gov. Bush has what it takes to be the leader of the free world.
Q: Has Gore honed his stump speeches since the recent debates?
KARL: Gore has certainly finetuned his stump speech. Traditionally we see in the closing weeks of a campaign, candidates going to as many rallies as possible and saying essentially the same thing. But what Gore is doing here, he's breaking out the tele-prompters virtually every day and putting out a new speech outlining a specific aspect of what he's calling the "big choice" in this election. Today in Nashville, it was education; yesterday, he was talking about the role of government and how big it should be. He's also had speeches on values. We can expect further speeches on issues like Social Security and Medicare. All very different written speeches and prepared texts - not your standard stump speeches.
There's a real sense of urgency on the part of Gore's advisers. They know this is an extremely tight race; that they're up against an extremely tough opponent who is known in the battleground states.