WASHINGTON -- Both presidential camps were surprised as this week began that momentum, along with a modest lead, had shifted back to George W. Bush. The Republican candidate is credited with straightening out his campaign after a dismal interlude. But he must also be grateful to Al Gore.
The Democratic candidate emerged from the Los Angeles convention as a new, improved Gore: disciplined, focused and free from mean-spirited attacks that made him unlikable during the Democratic primary elections. But he now has returned to obsessive exaggeration and distortion of his personal experience.
Whether or not that constitutes a serious defect for a president, the voters don't like it. His claim that he was present at the creation of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve when he wasn't is not good politics. Hard-headed politicians on both sides admit that is moving the poll numbers -- especially among women -- toward Bush.
This is the real reason why Gore's handlers abhor freewheeling question-and-answer
sessions. In proposing use of the oil reserve last Friday, the vice president held his first press conference in 67 days. After his wretched performance under Tim Russert's grilling July 16 on NBC's "Meet the Press," no more weekend television interview programs are likely. But Gore cannot be protected in the debates. While supporters admire his prowess as a debater, they doubt his self-control.
Following Bush's post-Los Angeles slump, Gore's managers expected to enter the debates starting Oct. 3 some 7 percentage points in front. Widespread expectation was that the presidential contest would be frozen for the duration of the Olympics. In fact, the athletics Down Under did not capture America's imagination, and the numbers moved in Bush's direction. He narrowed the gender gap at least temporarily by winning over women voters.
How did Bush do it? At a time when polls showed him behind and losing ground, I reported from Florida two weeks ago that the retooled Bush -- talking tax cuts and health care -- was looking better. Specifically, he told how these programs benefited women. Simultaneously, the old Gore re-emerged during this fortnight.
The claim is plausible that he was just kidding when he said he heard a childhood lullaby, "Look For The Union Label" -- a song written when he was 27 years old (though he may be unwise to practice the humor of exaggeration, considering his known propensity for doctoring the truth). Surely, he was not trying to be funny when he misrepresented a cost comparison of the same drug used by his mother-in-law and his dog.
Gore's biggest problem was his claim -- made during last Friday's rare press conference -- that "I've been part of the discussion in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve since the days it was first established." Actually, the reserve was established in 1975 -- two years before Gore came to Congress. His first recorded public comment on the issue was a column written for the Sept. 20, 1979, issue of his hometown Carthage (Tenn.) Courier, noting that the previous week he had chaired House hearings on management of the reserve.
His use of the phrase "first established" would be an excusable embellishment for most politicians, but it fits a Gore pattern. He told Time magazine last November that "I was the author of (the Earned Income Tax Credit). I wrote that." Not true. Soon afterward, he said he was "a co-sponsor" of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Not true (Gore left the Senate before Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin arrived).
This tendency disturbs many of Gore's supporters, some of whom see it as causing his drop-off in the women's vote last week. I asked one Democratic backstage operative, who is committed to the vice president and believes he will be elected on Nov. 7, whether he could explain Gore's conduct. "I just don't know what gets into him," he replied.
Al Gore's irresistible impulse to expand his own past role gives Republicans the opportunity to take a harsher view, suggesting that it underlies misrepresentation on substantive issues. At least, independent pollsters say, it has hampered the vice president in presenting his message to the people and quickly erased his modest lead. It has also undermined belief in the inevitability of President Gore.