Searching For The Sizzle

The Gore campaign calls it the "Going The Distance Tour." The Bush campaign calls it the "Squandered Opportunities Tour." As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

If Al Gore has squandered any opportunity, it was the chance to build up a good head of steam going into the Democratic convention. His announcement last week of Joe Lieberman as his running mate for the White House produced headlines that made the Gore campaign staff downright giddy with delight. Campaign manager Bill Daley told me the reaction surpassed anything that he could have imagined.

The scene in downtown Nashville at the steps of the World War II Memorial plaza was imbued with a sense of history that crossed generations. Hadassah Lieberman remarked that her parents, survivors of Nazi concentration and slave labor camps, were liberated by the very people the memorial was built to honor. It was a poignant and touching moment - and the kind of campaign "moment" politicians live for.

But from there, the "Going the Distance Tour" seemed to go into cruise control.

The vice president set off to his hometown of Carthage, Tenn. for a town hall event that had all the excitement of a PTA meeting. Certainly, Gore's "'til the last man drops" town meetings have earned him praise for both his interest and endurance. But one would think that hot on the heels of a historic running mate announcement, Gore would be after a big campaign event - and in a place where he needs to make up ground.

Picking up the endorsement of the United Auto Workers on Friday, Gore pulled into a small airport near Ypsilanti, Mich. to the orchestrated cheers of about 300 union members who had assembled in one of the hangars. It was the sort of thing you wouldn't notice if you passed by, except for the fact that Air Force Two was parked out front.

Two hours later, Gore was off to a fundraiser in New York, then on to Pittsburgh. As close as the race will be in Michigan, it would have seemed logical for Gore to hit a number of events in key districts and generate a little local sizzle, rather than a Willow Run airport hit-and-run.

Outside Pittsburgh on Saturday, Gore attended but one event - this one at the home of the late Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring sparked the modern environmental movement and stoked Gore's interest in the issue. Yet again, another small gathering - though folksy - as the vice president recounted his introduction to environmentalism and tried to put to rest criticism that his support for environmental issues has faded in the time since he wrote Earth in the Balance.

There was, however, a genuine "moment." Leaving the Carson home in Springdale, Pa. to return to Pittsburgh, Gore stopped his motorcade and crashed a wedding: good, old-fashioned retail politics that will have those folks buzzing for years.

On Sunday, the campaign did it again. One single event - tiny one on children's health care at University Hospital in Cleveland. It was Gore at his policy-wonk best - the sort of thing that he did so well during the primaries.

Perhaps though, someone forgot to tell Gore that the convention was just a day away. How about a couple of thousand people in front of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Maybe even some live music. Something, anything to say, "We're excited! And we're rolling!" The vice president could have leapt up on stage and given a good old stem-winder about his vision for a country where no one gets left behind. Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!

Well, maybe next week.