FRIENDSHIP HEIGHTS - With his wife, Tipper, at his side, Vice President Al Gore came to Maryland yesterday to tout her favorite cause - expanded care for mental illness - and, not coincidentally, to present himself as the one truly compassionate candidate in the presidential race.
Gore's plan for mental care for children came amidst a flurry of new policy proposals that seem tailored to re-invent him, yet again, as a positive-minded candidate in touch with ordinary Americans. This week, Gore is also promising stepped-up efforts to protect the environment and fight cancer.
His proposals follow weeks in which he steadily attacked the ideas of his Republican opponent, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who had laid out a centrist agenda on such issues as education, military policy and Social Security. Polls have shown the vice president's support slipping among many groups of voters.
Yesterday, Gore pledged that, if elected, he would seek to require that health insurers cover mental care for children on a par with other medical care. He also promised $2.5 billion over 10 years to ensure that states cover mental care for children in lower-income families that lack insurance. Maryland is among those states that already mandate such coverage.
Gore stressed that genetic exploration and new medical treatments made this a time of optimism for those with mental illness.
And he called the mental health initiatives an important part of his vision for the 21st century.
"I want to win with a mandate to start a completely new era that gives hope ... to everyone and to every family touched by mental illness," the vice president said at the Friendship Heights Community Center.
Gore aides, who acknowledged that they are beginning this week to present their candidate in a softer light, said they intend to wrest back public sentiment and to bounce back in the polls by linking some of his policy stands with his life experiences.
"At this point in the campaign, you're really introducing yourself to the American people through the prism of the issues that are important to you," said Chris Lehane, Gore's chief spokesman.
"What challenge the vice president faces is breaking through the office of the vice presidency and becoming a candidate in his own right."
"For most people, Al Gore is famous but not well-known," Lehane said. "The more voters know about Al Gore, the more they like him. The more they know about Governor Bush, the less they like him."
Lehane said voters would learn much more about Gore's upbringing in Washington and on his parents' farm in Carthage, Tenn.; his service in the Army during the Vietnam War as a military journalist; and his later work as a newspaper reporter upon returning to Tennessee in the early 1970s.
At several junctures during his extensive public career, Gore has sought to define himself more appealingly. This race is no exception.
After his Washington-based campaign, laden with highly paid consultants, failed to spark much enthusiasm last fall, he slashed the size of his staff and moved its headquarters to Nashville. And Gore adopted a folksier style, replete with cowboy boots and earth-toned suits.
Even some allies of the vice president have questioned the campaign's stylistic contortions.
"What happens sometimes is, style gets in the way of substance," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland. "I'm not a big fan of all this old-new, turn-around, upside-down stuff. Al Gore is a very bright, able guy who cares about issues, and who I think will articulate that."
In recent months, Gore often appeared at large rallies, flanked by rows of public officials and other dignitaries, and served up raspy-throated denunciations of Bush proposals as "risky schemes." The vice president now appears to have abandoned the assault-a-day style he had directed at Bush's policies - an approach similar to the one Gore used to help undercut his opponent in the primaries, former Sen. Bill Bradley.
On Tuesday, as Gore received the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters, he did not mention Bush directly. Instead, the vice president promised to outdo President Clinton's recent proposal to restrict road building in undeveloped national forests by calling for a ban on all logging and road building on 43 million acres of national forest.
Gore left it to Deb Callahan, the league president, to take up the cudgel against Bush and Texas' environmental shortcomings.
"Unfortunately, the new Al Gore is relying upon some of the old tactics of the old Al Gore," Dan Bartlett, a Bush spokesman, said yesterday.
"The only difference is now he's going to rely upon surrogates to do the dirty work."
At yesterday's event in Montgomery County, both Gores spoke in intimate terms about mental health care.