Richard Reeves

And the Winner Will Be ... Al Gore

WASHINGTON -- At the beginning of the end of the first presidential campaign of the 21st century, the race is Al Gore's to lose -- and he's probably not going to do that.

The easy summer of George W. Bush has ended badly. The likable brand-name governor of Texas right now seems unable to defend, or even define, his positions and programs on a range of crucial issues, from tax policy to health care to national security. He has chosen a running mate for vice president, Dick Cheney, who obviously does not like campaigning and is basically telling people that he has made a mistake going back into politics -- and he wants to keep his $20 million golden handshake from his old company.

Gore's summer ended well, after months of stumbling around the country trying to be or not to be all Clintons to all men. Despite his bulk, he had seemed small and more than a little nasty playing defense against Bill Bradley in the primaries, blaming Clinton and the press for his failings as a candidate on his own. He could explain why he should be president -- he's overqualified -- but not why he wanted to be president.

Gore, with every advantage, almost blew it all in the early months of the century. He got by Bradley only because he and the former senator from New Jersey are very similar, serious studious men, un-politicians who like to be alone figuring out things for themselves. But there was a difference: Gore had an instinct for the jugular; Bradley did not.

Then the vice president picked a vice presidential nominee, Joe Lieberman, who so far has added energy to the ticket rather than draining it, as Cheney is draining Republican energy. In Gore's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, he went back to the message that had worked for him in the past, as it had worked for his father, the first Senator Gore, back in Tennessee.

This is not the first time Gore the younger tried to become president by rousing the nation around issues that meant more to him than to voters. In 1988, with more ambition than feel, Gore had jumped into the Democratic primaries with the message that global warming was coming and arms control was needed before it was too late -- politics as the-sky-is-falling! But at the end of that campaign against not exactly the toughest competition in the world -- the even wonkier Michael Dukakis -- Gore did win six primaries in Southern and border states by forgetting about the doomed future and going back to that old-time religion: populism.

Gore may have saved himself last month by surprising everyone with a, comparatively, rip-roaring pledge to fight for the working families of America. But, actually, he did the same thing in the final weeks of his embarrassing 1988 campaign, changing his message then to: "The people are ready for a dose of responsible indignation on the question of economic fairness. ... I pledge to put the White House back on the side of working families. ... Let's put people over profits."

"Class warfare," as the winning class likes to put it, came too late for Gore 12 years ago, but he may have found that old speech at just the right time this year. As the campaign begins, the vice president is back where he should have started -- in front. He is not a great campaigner, and never will be, but the fundamentals of this race are on his side. At the American Political Science Association meeting here last week, seven academic stars demonstrated complex models of economic statistics that have been amazingly accurate in predicting presidential races over the past 50 years. All seven of the formulas showed Gore the winner, with from 52.3 percent to 60.3 percent of the major-party vote.

That may be fun and games. Still, Bush does not seem to be having as much fun these days, because he is being forced to play defense in a game that should be Gore's.

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