The race should never have been this close


Down to the wire. Cliffhanger. Nail-biter. Bizarre. How else to describe the still fluid outcome - as of this writing - of the 2000 presidential election? How about inexplicable? What happened to conventional wisdom that says a sitting vice president whose administration presided over a home-front of peace and unprecedented prosperity should have buried the opposition?

What went wrong? How did Al Gore's rosy future come to hang in the balance of a few hundred Florida votes? If, in the end, he can't pull it off - or even if he does - he should never have been in such a predicament.

He has only himself to blame for not clobbering the competition when he had the chance. May he kick himself from one end of Tennessee to the other for dropping the ball.

If that sounds unduly harsh in the drawn out aftermath of a ridiculously close horse race, tough. The thought of the country possibly going back to the future with four years of don't-bore-me-with-the-details Dubya, is a bitter pill the public should never have faced swallowing.

Running on a platform of adding to his administration's eight years of prosperity should have been enough for the vice president to reel in more than a micro margin of voters. But the veep blew it big by not playing it straight from the beginning. He assumed too much too early and took his good old time making a case for his candidacy. For too long the Anointed One gave the impression he was above politicking like other candidates, above getting his hands dirty stumping for votes on the campaign trail.

As a result he lost ground he never should have to a bumbling Texas governor who came to the presidential race by way of mere pedigree, not the proven potential of a quarter century of public service. He wasted precious opportunity to slam dunk his opposition by playing with petty problems and reinventing the wheel. He changed his clothes, campaign headquarters, messages, moods, and subsequently plenty of minds about his presidential aspirations. He turned a perfectly enviable resume of accomplishments into a cheesy, pre-packaged, say-and-do-anything petition for president.

He never was his own man despite protestations to the contrary, and voters sensed it. He had a chip on his shoulder the size of Arkansas and couldn't quite shake it. His enduring uneasiness with the sins of his boss pushed him to practically downplay all the real successes of the past eight years. His promise was “you ain't seen nothing yet,” without dwelling too much on what you've seen already of Clinton-Gore achievements.

There's only so much mileage one can grab from a lusty convention smooch, and the bounce Al Gore's lip-lock with Tipper gave his campaign was not a lasting one. The ensuing debates helped and hurt the Democrat depending on which Al Gore showed up at the forum. When the obvious lightweight in the room was actually judged to win the face-offs because he defied near unanimous predictions that he would lose them, the stage was set for an irrational upset over a clearly more cerebral and competent presidential candidate.

Al Gore just got in the way of himself. He stretched the patience of the electorate when he stretched the truth. He lost touch with his grass roots by leapfrogging to greener pastures to shore up slim support. He surrendered key battleground regions of the country to his ultimate peril. Ohio, which went twice to Bill Clinton, <$eb> might have blunted Mr. Gore's defeat if only he had massaged the right corners of the state more to rally dispirited loyalists.

He virtually ignored the one Democrat in Columbus with national stature who would gladly have worked on his behalf. John Glenn is still waiting to be asked. Say what you will about Bill Clinton, but I remain convinced the insecure second banana let unreasonable fear blind him and his inner circle of consultants to reasonable political strategy. The president and his inimitable political skills were foolishly kept in deep, deep background.

A man who was groomed for the presidency by a father's unfulfilled political ambitions and by years of intense preparation as a congressman and senator may have missed the opportunity of a lifetime. By all rights the presidency should have been Mr. Gore's for the taking. But Al Gore, not Bill Clinton or anyone else, was Al Gore's worst enemy.

Let him second-guess himself into perpetuity, especially if the rest of us have to live with a less-qualified candidate who was allowed to win.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer. E-mail her at