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Saturday, 23 October, 1999, 13:23 GMT
Gore's battle for nomination
By Stephen Sackur in Washington
There's a story doing the rounds in Washington about Al Gore as a schoolboy which does much to explain why the incumbent vice-president is struggling to breathe life into his presidential campaign.
Some four decades ago, young Al was the smart well-mannered son of Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee. The family lived in the top floor suite of a posh Washington hotel.
Every day Gore Junior would make the short journey to St Albans School, a magnet for the offspring of the great and the good in the American capital.
One day Al and his class went on a field trip. For a brief moment the children were left unsupervised by their teacher and of course bedlam ensued - kids chasing each other, throwing things, climbing trees ... except for Gore.
When the teacher returned young Albert approached and asked the question that had clearly been praying on his mind.
"Sir, sir," he said, "is it time to be rowdy?"
Time to stop playing safe
Al Gore is not and never was 'Mr Spontaneous'. But wind the clock on some 40-odd years and the time has come for him to stop playing safe.
Employing some genuine passion, displaying his humanity, that's the only way the vice-president will overcome his failure to connect with the American public.
Ponder the snapshot from the Gore campaign in New Hampshire a few days ago.
Mr Gore had laboriously presented his detailed plan for expanding special education. Eventually the meeting was opened up for comments and a man in a wheelchair made some observations about funding.
Mr Gore listened intently. That is until he noticed an earnest young aide brandishing a piece of paper off to the side.
Now he tried to keep his eyes on the speaker but they kept darting to the right. He put a hand out, still trying to listen and a note was thrust into it.
Now you can tell Gore was itching to read that message. Moments later, the comments from the man in the wheelchair came to an end.
The vice-president immediately glanced down at the piece of paper. He looked up distracted, and mumbled: "Thank-you for sharing that with us."
There was an embarrassed silence, and, within seconds, he and his entourage of secret servicemen, fixers, gofers and spinners were gone.
A credible challenge
But now there is a threat and it's looming over Gore physically as well as metaphorically.
At 6'6", Bill Bradley cuts a familiar figure to many Americans not in the least interested by politics - because he was for years one of the nations most-celebrated basketball players. First as a college athlete at Princeton University, then as a pro with the New York Knicks.
Which isn't to say that Bill Bradley is a celebrity politician in the same mould as say the former wrestler turned Governor of Minnesota, Jesse 'The Body' Ventura.
Far from it. While Ventura revels in his lurid past and takes muscular pleasure from defying the conventions of American politics, Bradley, a former Senator, is dignified and somewhat aloof. Always deadly earnest and sometimes deadly dull.
At the beginning of this year, few pundits gave Bradley any chance of threatening Al Gore's grip on the Democratic nomination. Now they're having to re-think.
A radical outsider
Bradley's strategy has been carefully crafted to pick on the vice-president's weaknesses. He's running as an outsider, with radical ideas.
Appealing both to the millions of Americans simply fed up with two terms of Clinton and Gore, and to those Democrats who think that centrism has gone too far and who like Bradley's plans for universal health insurance, new help for the poor and much tougher gun laws.
Bradley's success can already be measured in dollars and cents. This year, amazingly, he's raised as much campaign cash as the vice-president.
And recently he made a carefully choreographed return journey to his birthplace, the small mid-west town of Crystal City, Missouri. He showed off the basketball hoop outside the family home where he practised for hours to turn himself into a prodigious young athlete.
"I know how to come from behind," he told the crowd, and it seemed like they genuinely believed he could do it again.
It's just possible though that Bradley has peaked too early.
And he still has the support of the Democratic Party establishment, the congressmen and the labour unions, and at last he seems to have grasped the urgent need to energise his campaign.
He's called for a series of debates with Bradley, a shrewd move given that his opponent's style is even more plodding than his own.
I last saw him in New Hampshire at a neighbourhood reception. He made a much more personal speech - he now describes himself as the underdog, by the way - after which he plunged into the crowd with what seemed like enthusiasm.
Within minutes, his shirt was drenched with sweat as he glad-handed and joked his way around. The wet shirt wasn't attractive of course, but it was a sign of Al Gore's belated recognition that if he wants to be president, it is most definitely time to get rowdy
Links to other From Our Own Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.
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