Guess Who's Been To Vietnam?

Al Gore arrives at a rally in Monroe, Mich., Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2000.
You would think that after 26 years on the national political stage, first as a Congressman, then Senator, candidate for president and eight years as vice president, the last thing Al Gore would have to do is introduce himself to voters.

But that is exactly the aim of Gore's campaign blitz, which has taken him through the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Illinois - on to the convention - and then a riverboat ride down the Mississippi river. At rallies and town hall meetings, Gore spends as much time telling people who he is as he does outlining his vision for America's future.

His record in Vietnam is a favorite theme - in stark contrast to his opponent, who served in the Air National Guard and never got close to Southeast Asia. Gore rarely forgets to mention that he enlisted "so that no one in my hometown of Carthage would have to go in my place." Close friends say that may be true, but they also believe that Gore went as much to shield his senator father from any more criticism than he was already taking for his unpopular anti-war stance. A deferral for a senator's son would not have played well in Tennessee.

He also talks a lot about family - particularly his new grandson Wyatt - his daughter Karenna's first child. To approving laughter, Gore tells the audience at various stops that the best policy for dealing with your grandchild is "to give him everything he wants." And if that doesn't work, "give him back to his parents."

But in "re-introducing" himself to voters, Gore sounds awkwardly patronizing. His war record is typically followed with a salute to veterans: "Any World War II veterans in the audience? Thank you! Any Korean War veterans? You guys had it tough. Any Vietnam veterans? Welcome home." His reference to Wyatt is usually preceded by the phrase "Any grandparents here today?"

Good evening. Welcome to the Starlight Lounge. Any birthdays in the audience???

Politics has never been subtle, but masters of the trade deliver their personal history and record in a way that voters can swallow like a drop of honeydew - and not make them feel like they're having an endoscopy.

If polls are to be believed, the area where it is crucial for Gore to make up ground is in leadership qualities. People don't know all that much about Governor Bush. The name helps, of course, but only as a point of reference. What really counts is that he was Governor. The chief executive - if only of a state - but a leader nonetheless. Gore has been the number two guy to an overwhelming presence for eight years and voters see him that way (point of reference - think President George Bush).

The polls show that Gore doesn't need people to like him for his background. Voters don't want a Dudley-do-right trying to be folksy. They want someone they can believe in as a leader. That is the challenge for Gore. To make them believe.