Four Days In L.A.

Vice President Al Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, set off on a 400-mile riverboat ride down the Mississippi on Friday to "set a course for the future," a post-convention victory lap billed as an opportunity to talk with working families about their plans for the future.

But we journalists left on shore are still talking about the past, namely the last four days in Los Angeles.

Though presidential candidates traditionally bounce in the polls after their moment in the spotlight, some wonder if Gore and the Democrats will fare any better than the hordes of protesters who, faced with overbearing heat and police exposure, fell short of their build-up.

The effect of the convention won't be known for days (if not weeks), but fresh surveys show the vice president gaining ground. An overnight NBC News poll gave Gore 46 percent and Republican standard bearer George W. Bush 43 percent, with an error margin of 4 percent, making for a dead heat.

Political scientists from across the country agree that in order for Gore to extend his lead, he and the Democrats needed to accomplish two things this week: consolidate the party base and attract independent and swing voters.

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  • The Democrats arrived at their national convention in the same shape as the protestors: united in their passion but divided on their message. But the sparring factions of the party seemed to unite over the week and left with a unified mission to get their candidate elected.

    Gore "did just enough and no more," says Bruce Cain, the Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley Cain says there was enough in his acceptance speech to assure the base that on several core issues – race, workers' rights, health care and education – he was one of them.

    But Cain says Gore "missed the boat" by failing to remind voters they are better off than they were eight years ago, which might have brought more swing voters under the tent.

    "When push comes to shove, Americans are pocketbook voters," says Cain. "I don’t think Gore hit it hard enough."

    Political scientist Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia agrees that Gore's appeal to independents is the real question mark coming out of the convention.

    "There were some [enticements] but they were often understated in his speech," says Sabato.

    Bruce Buchanan, who heads the school of government at the University of Texas at Austin, believes Gore and the Democrats also had to address the vice president's "leadership and likeability" problem. Voter surveys consistently give Gov. Bush higher marks in these categories.

    Buchanan cites a crowd-pleasing line from Gore's speech in which he said, "the presidency is more than a popularity contest."

    "To me, the value of that approach was in convincing people it may be superficial to focus on style so much more than substance," said Buchanan. "I know I took the point. We'll have to wait and see if America did."

    Gore stated long before his speech that he wanted to focus more on issues than the Texas governor did in his speech at the GOP convention in Philadelphia, and these political scientists believe he achieved that in his remarks.

    "The heralded shift into issues, which was the right thing to do… puts the ball in Bush’s court," says Cain.

    But the experts don't agree on the highlights and low points of the convention week.

    For Sabato, the high point was Gore's speech. "Unfortunately for Gore, Clinton was a very close second." But, he adds, "Gore did well enough that he's still in it."

    "Liberal night [Tuesday] was a disaster," says Sabato, because it didn't have the "oomph" of the other nights, and it caused the self-proclaimed "party of the future" to dwell on events from 40 years ago.

    Cain considers Lieberman's performance an "unexpected" highlight because "he showed how his sense of humor is a potential weapon." He said President Clinton's speech was "brilliant," but unsurprising considering his reputation for oratorical prowess.

    For Bruce Buchanan, Mr. Clinton's "rather self-indulgent performance" was the low light, especially his long stroll into the convention hall. Tracked step-by-step by a handheld camera, the choreographed entrance of the commander-in-chief resembled a prelude to Monday Night Football.

    Yet what else would one expect in a city known more for its showmanship than its substance, where the likes of Chrisie Brinkley and Warren Beatty stroll the convention hall, and invitations to parties at Barbra Streisand's or Kevin Costner's caused more bragging rights than a handshake from the nominee.

    As the delegates snapped photos of swimming pools and movie stars, as we hillbillies like to say, it's doubtful the scenes outside the convention hall will end up on too many rolls of film.

    Merchants downtown and as far away as Santa Monica boarded up stores to discourage attacks from anti-establishment anarchists. The streets surrounding the Staples Center at times resembled an occupied police state. Protestors crowded behind high chain-linked fences had more opportunity to shout at jaded members of the media exiting from the north side of the hall, than delegates whisked away in buses from the south.

    And news reports about the working poor who live in the rundown apartments surrounding the convention hall were few and far between. One Los Angeles Times reporter profiled a blue-collar worker who was kept up nights by the news and police helicopters and was forced to park his car two blocks away for the duration of the convention.

    It's enough to make you forget what a party convention is supposed to be about.

    Richard Powell of Georgia seemed to know the secret is not taking any of it too seriously. He strolled past the yards of bunting and corporate signs along with Swifty, his pet donkey, who he called "a symbol of the Democrats."