CARTHAGE, Tenn. - Al Gore, who has occupied the vice presidency for nearly eight years and who served in Congress for nearly 16 years, trekked to his home base in the rolling farm country of the Cumberland Valley yesterday to reintroduce himself to America as a man whose roots lie in central Tennessee.
"Everything important in my life, it seems, has started in Carthage," Gore told a crowd of more than 200 people packed into the overheated gymnasium of an elementary school, closing with, "Thank you, Carthage, for helping to raise me - for being the village that raised me."
Despite his quarter-century in public office, Gore campaign officials say the American electorate does not really know the vice president
"I think he is famous, but he is still not well-known," said Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane. "That comes with the territory of being vice president. ... Part of the job of running for president is introducing and reintroducing yourself to the American people."
Gore began his presidential bid last year in front of Carthage's courthouse, where he has opened every campaign since his first run for Congress in 1976.
Last winter, as he fought off the insurgent primary campaign of former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, he fled Washington to move his campaign headquarters to Nashville, a little more than an hour's drive from Carthage.
Now, as he surges in some polls, the newly confident vice president is seeking to introduce himself once again. Jimmy Carter had his Plains, Ga., George W. Bush has his Midland, Texas, and Gore is determined to have his touchstone in Carthage.
In a day heavy on biographical details and loaded with discussions on health care policy, medical research and child-safety regulations, Gore brought his new running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, to the Gore family farms in Carthage, then jetted to Lieberman's birthplace, Stamford, Conn.
`Feel like homecoming king'
In Stamford last night, Lieberman needed no introduction. An overflow crowd packed the city's Italian Center. Well-wishers stood at the corners of suburban streets, holding aloft copies of a special edition of the Stamford Advocate, blaring: "Welcome home."
"Not everyone was happy that Al Gore picked Lieberman," Connecticut Speaker of the House George Jepsen told a boisterous crowd. "That smirk on George W.'s face came off awfully quick."
Recalling an aborted high school dance, when he had to forfeit his spot on the homecoming court because the event fell on the Jewish Sabbath, Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, told the audience, "I want to thank all of you for making me feel like a homecoming king tonight."
It was the first day of the Democrats' "Going the Distance" tour, which will zigzag across the country en route to next week's national convention in Los Angeles.
The day also offered Gore an opportunity to assert his authority over the ticket as he showed his new running mate around his hometown. The policy differences that separate Gore and Lieberman are increasingly becoming a campaign issue, as Bush seeks to portray Gore's vice presidential pick as more ideologically in line with the Republican ticket than with the Democrats.
Questioned about his past support for federally funded vouchers to pay for private school, Lieberman fell into line.
"Believe me, when President Gore decides, Vice President Lieberman will support him wholeheartedly," Lieberman said.
Gore said he was "not afraid to have a vice president who disagrees with" him but was emphatic that he was not heading Lieberman's way on the issue.
"My administration will be opposed to private school vouchers," Gore said.
The campaign of the Texas governor, who has vowed to run a positive campaign and restore civility to Washington, was caustic yesterday. Campaign statements mocked what Bush called Gore's "squandered opportunities tour" and recalled Gore's early votes as a Tennessee congressman in favor of tobacco crop price supports and against gun control.
Bush campaign aides again scorned the notion of Gore, the son of a senator who attended an elite Washington prep school before heading to Harvard, as a down-home son of the South.
"Al Gore can't travel far enough to distance himself from the squandered opportunities of the last eight years, but he has certainly chosen an interesting place to once again introduce voters to the `real Al Gore,'" said Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett.
The Bush campaign for the first time attacked Lieberman, who until yesterday had elicited only admiration from the GOP standard-bearer. Campaign aides charged that Lieberman had flip-flopped on Social Security privatization, noting an interview from April 1998 in which the senator said that "individual control of part of the retirement Social Security funds has got to happen."