NBC's Saturday Night Live once parodied the predicament Al Gore is facing in the final stretch of his campaign against George W. Bush. When he's not stumping in one more town, in one more school, factory, market, or parking lot, Al “I've paid my dues” Gore has to be scratching the thinning hair on his head, muttering contemptuously, “I can't believe I might lose to this guy.”
Frankly, I can't either.
Picture George W. laboring late into the wee hours of the morning to negotiate a cease fire or fragile peace proposal between nationalities as divergent and distrusting of each other as the Palestinians and Israelis. Picture George W. poring over the evolving complexities of other highly volatile regions of the world as well as foreign dilemmas as dicey as NATO's changing role among a divided European alliance and how the United States figures into the whole mix. As his dad would say, “Can't picture it.” Seriously, who can?
Mr. Bush, God bless his good ol' boy's heart, is not only shallow, he's scary shallow. Had the look of a deer in headlights too many times during the debates when he clearly was out of his depth on particulars. He'd sniffle, squirm, giggle nervously, and revert to mouthing simplistic campaign mantras to fill in the too frequent blank moments. But polls show he is inching ahead of a man who, at least by conventional wisdom, should be doing a cakewalk to the White House. So why is Al Gore in such trouble?
Besides the usual reasons proffered by exasperated pundits about the overanalyzed veep - that he is charismatically challenged, that makeover is his middle name, that he will say and do anything to be president - “just call me Al” shot himself in the foot by refusing to deploy his most potent weapon of offense. He just can't bring himself to enlist the help of the man who not only gave him national stature by making him his full partner on the twice victorious Clinton-Gore ticket, but one who, friends and foes concede, can out-politick the best of them.
He made one Bush a former president even after the pinched-nosed patrician rode the crest of record popularity polls after a popular, if not antiseptic, Persian Gulf War. Bill Clinton would have made mincemeat of George the younger and done it with a smile.
Memo to Al: There's still time.
Call in the pro's pro to light a fire under your campaign. Your supporters need a call to action, to urgency, to get off their duffs and get out the vote. You can still be your own man, Al. It's still your campaign. What have you got to lose but the whole enchilada?
The vice president has to get past his straight-arrow avoidance of a flawed man but favored President who despite his baggage is a figure to be reckoned with politically. Plus he's champing at the bit to get at the nebbish son of his old rival and tear him a new major league arena. You know it's been hell for Bubba to sit on the sidelines spitting nails while the dim bulb who would be president casts aspersions about what he would be ecstatic to achieve as commander in chief - save that embarrassing episode with the big-haired babe in the executive suites.
Early on the Y2K presidential election was said to be Mr. Gore's to lose. It still is. His core constituency desperately needs a shot of adrenaline to go to the wall for a candidate they could take or leave. The soft Gore supporters across key demographic groups, coupled with less-than-solid Democratic grassroots structures in major battleground states like Ohio, should signal to the Gore campaign that something major is amiss.
The unions will work their tails off to prevent a Bush victory, but an organized campaign fueled more by animus against an opponent than admiration for a party candidate may not draw the number of voters who might otherwise be motivated to flock to the polls. Voters who might be willing, eager even, to cast ballots for a candidate so different and compelling that he electrifies a majority of Americans aching for different and compelling candidates.
That phenomena played well in Peoria during the McCain primary but fizzled out quickly with the Arizona senator's endorsement of W. Barring some unforeseen event to rally the troops, the Gore camp needs to use its trump card. The Clinton haters - the core of Bush backers - will vote their disdain en masse regardless of what the President does or says in the waning days of the campaign.
The core Gore voters are not so driven and must become so. An election this close will tip to the candidate who gives voters a reason to vote - like sweeping the White House of Clinton & Co. If anyone can pump up Democrats about Al Gore, it's his boss. Let him loose on his own to stir up the rank and file and maybe the momentum will swing to the guy anxiously scanning the polls and scratching his head.
Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.