Well before Election Day, campaigns tend to be lost or won depending on whose vision of the race prevails. The secret code of the Bush campaign is that politics doesn't really matter, the country is at peace, the market is up, so you can afford to vote for the guy you like because we're all happy centrists now. George W. Bush has all but dared Al Gore to fight on that ground, as he strolled down the middle of the field, threw up a tent and invited every voter to the party.
Gore heard the music and read the polls and saw that this was a contest he could not win. He is sharper when he's in a fight, but Bush has not played by the Gore rules. He's been a confounding foe, he won't say anything specific enough to give Gore a target, and yet he has had the crowd on his side from the start, to the point that even some Democratic voters were drifting toward his corner.
So last week Gore picked a different fight. "The presidency is more than a popularity contest," he declared in his speech on Thursday night. "It's a day-by-day fight for people." All that populism, the hymns to long-haul truckers and late-shift waitresses, is not really about changing tactics; it's about changing enemies. He may not win a popularity contest against George W. Bush, but he might win one against, say, Exxon. You didn't hear him so much as mention Bush last week. Instead he found the enemies he wanted: the greedy HMOs, the polluters, the tobacco and oil companies. If the demons seem real and the stakes are high and issues actually matter, Gore gets to fight on the ground where he is strongest, win back the Democrats who have wandered off, maybe even warrant a second look from the fickle soccer moms. If he's artful, he can do it without sounding too much like Huey Long--just wrap the New Democratic message in an old Democratic tarp. At least that's the strategy. Centrist Democrats who are desperately rooting for Gore are watching this with their heart in their throat. Nearly everything about the Gore tack--indeed, much of last week's party convention in Los Angeles--left them scratching their head and pining for that old Clinton magic. Why does Gore have to use the word fight 20 times in his speech when every survey shows many swing voters want all the partisan fighting to stop? "It's hard to lead a nation by dividing it, by pitting people against each other," Bush shot back the next day. "That's the rhetoric of the past. That's...class warfare." For that matter, why was the whole Democratic spectacle so, well, democratic? Every interest group got its five minutes in the spotlight: the Clinton family on Monday, the Kennedy family on Tuesday and then, the next night, a picket line: speakers from the teachers union, the AFL-CIO and the N.A.A.C.P. Four years ago, Bill Clinton won a landslide by serenading independent voters with themes like welfare reform, crime fighting, deficit reduction. Last week Gore sang that refrain too, but you had to listen carefully for it.