WASHINGTON -- A year ago, the Gore presidency became the buzz in Washington. Bill Clinton was on the way out, the pundits said. Al Gore would soon be taking over.
Yesterday, Gore -- still No. 2 -- kicked his presidential campaign into high gear at rallies in New Hampshire and Iowa. But with polls showing him trailing the Republican front-runners, the same pundits who once speculated about "President" Gore's choice of vice president are now dismissing his chances of winning the general election.
"This is going to be a campaign about ideas," Gore told reporters in Manchester, N.H., brushing aside a question about his electability. "Polls don't win elections, ideas do. This is going to be about a vision of America."
Gore's vision, as he outlined it before an invitation-only crowd of supporters in the first primary state, is an attempt to build on the successes of the Clinton administration. It is directed toward suburbanites, fellow baby boomers and working women -- the swing voters he will need to win over in next year's election.
Long on futuristic language but short on specifics, the vice president said his first priority would be to extend the economic prosperity of the Clinton years by keeping the budget balanced and spending more for research, technology and public education.
He also promoted a package of family-friendly initiatives, including more prenatal health care, breast cancer detection, mental health and childhood immunization programs and more affordable prescription drugs. He said he wants to ease the traffic jams that wear out working parents, while preserving open space, building more parks and cleaning up contaminated inner-city industrial sites.
"We will work together and create an America in the 21st century of which it will be written a thousand years hence: This is the greatest nation ever on the face of this Earth, and its finest hours began in 2001," said Gore, who shared a flag-bedecked stage with dozens of supporters and their children, each clutching a miniature American flag.
The six-plus years he has spent at Clinton's side are both Gore's most potent asset and the source of some of his most serious problems.
On the plus side, his association with Clinton makes Gore the heavy favorite to become the Democratic nominee and has frightened most other contenders from the field. One of them, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, came along yesterday on what was described as the vice president's first official campaign trip of the 2000 contest. He formally endorsed Gore's as-yet-undeclared candidacy, calling his one-time rival "a wonderful human being."
As he begins to emerge from Clinton's shadow, Gore seems fated to be compared unfavorably with the president. Though he has picked up some of his boss's mannerisms -- he gave Clintonesque bear hugs onstage to his New Hampshire campaign manager and Gephardt -- Gore lacks Clinton's sure-footedness as a campaigner and his ability to connect with audiences.
While capitalizing on Clinton's popularity, especially inside the Democratic Party, Gore must step gingerly to avoid unpleasant associations with Clinton's personal failings.
In thanking Gephardt for his endorsement, Gore repeated his praise of remarks the Democratic leader made on the floor of the House last December without ever mentioning Gephardt's topic that day: impeachment.
Gore also has a demonstrated weakness for self-inflicted damage. He stumbled last week when he boasted, incorrectly, that as a congressman he "took the initiative in creating the Internet." Though he was a leading proponent of what he termed the "information superhighway," the Internet began as a Defense Department initiative years before Gore came to Congress.
The vice president once made a similarly exaggerated claim that he and his wife, Tipper, had inspired the book "Love Story." It turned out that author Erich Segal based the characters mostly on others, though Gore was, in part, the basis for the preppy hero.
Gore is already collecting millions in contributions, on his way to what could be a fund-raising record, and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley is his only challenger for the Democratic nomination. But doubts about Gore's electability recently caused one party official, New York State Democratic Chairwoman Judith Hope, to publicly question whether the vice president would be the strongest nominee next year.
Early polling has revealed Gore to be surprisingly weak among independents, a group whose support was crucial to Clinton's election. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that almost half of all independents (49 percent) and one in six Democrats (16 percent) say they've already ruled out voting for Gore.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center, said he's yet to see polling data that supports the popular theory that Gore's weakness is, at least in part, a reaction to the Lewinsky scandal and a reflection of the public's desire to move beyond that episode by bringing a completely new face into the White House.