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Gore bets that 'serious' can win in November

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

Gore promised to stand with "the people" during his speech Thursday at the Democratic National Convention  

In this story:

The same ...

... but different


LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Vice President Al Gore's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday began as an echo of George Bush's 1988 acceptance speech to the Republicans. Then it turned into a classic State of the Union speech by President Bill Clinton.

And thereby hangs the tale on which this election will turn.

Just as Bush had to do 12 years ago, when he was vice president, Al Gore had to praise the incumbent president before a hall full of partisans, and then yank him off the stage and stand alone. In fact, Gore used words similar to Bush's: "Now you must see me as I am," Bush said back then. "I want you to know me for who I truly am," Gore said Thursday.

Vice President Al Gore makes his presidential nomination acceptance speech

(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)

"Now we turn the page and write a new chapter," Gore said. Then he turned the page -- and delivered Clinton's first third-term State of the Union.

The same ...

The similarities between Gore's speech and a classic Clinton speech were striking, perhaps most notably with the use of human props, the so-called "Skutnicks."

These are named after Lenny Skutnick, hero of the Air Florida rescue in the frozen Potomac in 1982 who was singled out by President Ronald Reagan for a bow from the galleries. Thus began a custom Bush and Clinton followed. Clinton raised their use to drive home policy points to an art form.

Like Clinton, Gore used each of these "Skutnicks" to make a policy point -- for a Patients' Bill of Rights, or prescription drugs for the elderly, or better schools. (It was probably no accident that the Gutierrez family, whose daughter's school is "crumbling and overcrowded, with cracked walls and peeling plaster," as Gore put it, is from the home state of the Republican presidential nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.)

Vice President Al Gore and wife Tipper, left, stand with Sen. Joe Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, on stage after Gore's acceptance speech Thursday  

These living tableaus were the first wave of an army of policy proposals in Gore's speech.

Critics, especially retired speechwriters like me, generally do not like this policy-laden kind of speech. We yearn for shining cities on the hill, and kinder, gentler nations, and dreams that soar above the fruited plains and purple mountains' majesty.

But you know what? Every time Clinton would give one of these kinds of State of the Union speeches, laden with specific proposals, the public responded with enthusiasm.

And that is exactly what Gore and his campaign were counting on: that, in this apolitical time, when the public seems utterly fed up with anything approaching political rhetoric, voters want more of what Clinton gave them: specific, detailed proposals that promise to make their lives better.

... but different

Pauline Gore, seated, listens as her son, Al Gore, gives his acceptance speech Thursday  

Indeed, that impatience with political rhetoric explains the one sharp difference between George Bush's 1988 acceptance speech and Gore's.

Back then, Bush went after Michael Dukakis and the Democrats with very tough language. He ridiculed Dukakis' "competency" argument by saying, "Competence makes the trains run on time, but doesn't know where they're going." And Bush dragged the Massachusetts governor right out of the mainstream with hot-button issues.

But Gore did not so much as mention his opponent's name, much less parry any of Bush's criticisms.

And there was one element in Gore's speech that did mark a difference with Clinton: a dose of populism.

Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks to the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles  

Gore talked about "powerful forces and powerful interests [that] stand in your way." In an indirect reference to the Republicans, he said, "They're for the powerful. We're for the people."

This is, at first blush, a curious argument. It flies in the face of the "New Democrat" approach that both Clinton and Gore have embraced for years. It sounds more like Ralph Nader talking about global corporate power than a candidate whose No. 1 goal is to retire the national debt. But that may be the point: Gore needed to give his party's left enough to keep them by his side.

The more critical political question involves a simple issue: The Gore campaign is arguing that a presidential election "is more than a popularity contest," because it knows it cannot win that contest.


Gore's argument Thursday for electing him president is based on the premise that a serious man, making a serious argument, will draw an effective contrast with a largely untested governor of Texas.

No doubt there will be millions of dollars' worth of advertising that will try to explain how George W. Bush is just Southern-speak for Michael Dukakis.

y: After Philadelphia: Could we actually have an engaging, consequential campaign?
By Jeff Greenfield -- August 4, 2000 AllPolitics
   •Democratic Convention
   •Election 2000
   •Republican Convention

Democratic National Committee
George W. Bush for President
Republican National Committee

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