Gore: U.S. Military Is Ready

Al Gore, V.F.W., defense, George W. Bush, military
A day after his Republican rival warned the next president would "inherit a military in decline," Democrat Al Gore called America's armed forces "the strongest and the best in the entire world."

Gore defended the current shape of the U.S. military on Tuesday before the same group that Bush had addressed - the Veterans of Foreign Wars' national convention in Milwaukee.

Wearing his V.F.W. hat, Gore told more than 7,000 of that group's members, "I love this country and I will make sure our military continues to be the best-trained, best-equipped, best-led fighting force in the world."

The Democratic presidential hopeful, who's a member of a VFW post in Carthage, Tenn., reminded members of his experience as a military journalist in Vietnam - an oblique contrast with Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.

"I don't pretend that my own military experience matches in any way what others here have been through," said Gore. "When I enlisted, I became an Army reporter in Vietnam. I didn't do the most, or run the gravest danger. But I was proud to wear my country's uniform."

On Monday, Gore and his running mate Joe Lieberman wrapped up their Mississippi River boat tour.

Hoarse and relatively loose, a dressed-down Gore recycled the best lines from his convention speech in Los Angeles last week, arguing that he's the candidate who understands the middle and working classes and will deliver the targeted tax cuts they need for health care and education costs.

"I'm for you! I want to fight for you! I'm for the folks making house payments and car payments," Gore told two thousand people in Quincy, Ill. where supporters held signs reading "Tipper & Hadassah, Mississippi Queens" in honor of Gore and Lieberman's wives, who've accompanied them on the four-day, 400-mile cruise of the Big Muddy.

Conducting a floating town hall meeting with local people on the last day aboard the riverboat Mark Twain on Monday, Gore said, "Joe and I are going to take the risk of going into detail about the issues. Don't you think that's what people want? "

The strategy attempts to construct a choice between Gore's kitchen sink agenda - which promises something for everyone but the wealthiest - with Bush's platform, which provides more detail on Social Security and education than on Medicare or taxes.

"What about the specifics" of Bush's Social Security plan, Gore asked at the Quincy rally. "Where does the money come from? Their answer is they'll tell you after the election. Well, I'll give you specifics before the election. I'm not afraid for you to know the facts about what Joe Lieberman and I are proposing. I want you to know exactly what we're proposing to do."

And so, Gore has embraced his inner policy wonk and conceded the popularity contest to Bush. Clearly, it's been liberating for him. Unscripted Gore, the guy who smooches his wife whenever h wants to, even bantered with a member of the crowd at the rally.

"Trickle down?" Gore responded, "You want it to percolate up? I'm with you!"

On the river, Gore mused, "The federal government doesn't have a Department of You ... at least not yet."

A little intuition is a good thing, but things got almost Bradley-like as Gore finished the Quincy rally.

"I want to ask you for something that's hard to give, something people hardly ever give anymore," he said. "I want to ask you to open your hearts and allow yourselves to believe without reservation that we can do the right thing in America and be the better for it."

Gore, whose enemies maintain he'll say anything to get elected, said, "I want you to allow yourselves to believe that I am standing here before you without any ulterior motive, but because I want to fight to make this country a better place. I'm telling you straight from the heart. That's why I'm here. I want you to believe that we can all do the right thing and be the better for it."

Several national polls conducted at the end of the Democratic convention and since show Gore eating into Bush's lead.

A new CBS News poll shows Gore in a statistical dead heat with Bush, which is where two other national polls put the candidates. Gore leaped 10 points in the CBS poll since the end of the Republican convention.

The CBS poll shows Gore has solidified his base by gaining more than 10 points among Democrats - and he's made up some ground in "leadership qualities," where he used to lag 11 points behind Bush.

Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley said on Sunday that he's encouraged, but added, "Polls will go up and down. The only one that will really matter is the one on November 7th."

In an interview aboard the "Mark Twain," Gore told CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts on Monday that the poll he likes best is one that shows increased voter interest in the race.

"As more people really listen and pay attention, the issues become more important than the imagery, the substance becomes more important than the soundbites," said Gore.

"The secret is out: it's going to be a close election," said Lee Miringhoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York.

Miringhoff thinks the Gore strategy of pitching to voters whose financial lives haven't kept pace with the overall economy is "insightful" and resonates with Reagan Democrats in the Midwest.

"Bush in Philadelphia may have left the door open for Gore a little bit by not being thematic and issues-focused," said Miringhoff. "Bush tried to ace service and Gore returned it. If Bush's people had to do it over again, they may have been more specific. That's why the [Gore] rebound has been larger than the original bounce to Bush was."