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Gore lacks charisma to carry election

AL GORE shouts. Those who regularly watch him speak have noted the tendency. His speeches have regular crescendos, a characteristic that often grates on the nerves of those who listen to him. This seems a petty point, but it's indicative of a fatal problem with both Gore and his campaign.

See, speaking loudly all the time is an old speech trick that works best for people who can't emote -- people who have trouble conveying what they feel, or even that they feel anything at all. If you can't give your audience the impression that you're intense or committed, then shout. Can't convey that you're angry? Shout. Can't show them that you're excited? Shout. Hopefully, the audience will figure out that you've got some kind of emotion running through your synapses, and react accordingly. Al Gore is the perfect person to use this tactic.

Of course, in the past eight years plenty of comments and gags have focused on Gore's very low level of charisma. It would be almost impossible to count the number of editorial cartoons, comedy sketches and jokes that have ridiculed Gore's near-total inability to emote. What's lost in the slew of cheap laughs, however, is the severity of the problem that this handicap poses for Gore's presidential campaign. The person who wins the upcoming election will not win on issues so much as on charisma. And Gore has none.

Why is charisma the key? Undoubtedly, it always has had an impact on elections. But changes in the political landscape have made issues less important, while making the impression a candidate leaves with the voting public far more critical.

The charge to the center is one of the principal reasons for this change. Many analysts have noted that, in the '90s, the moderate candidate has preeminence. Regardless of party affiliation, politicians have found that avoiding controversial or extreme stands tends to put them in office more frequently than the alternative. Of course, this means that unique platforms are becoming a thing of the past.

Sure, a few candidates are holding to extreme stands on some issues, but nobody really believes that Gary Bauer, Lyndon LaRouche or Pat Buchanan can put up a realistic bid for the presidency. Most people just don't want to change the status quo.

After all, the situation in America is pretty good. Leaving aside questions of who is responsible for the changes, the fact is that crime, divorce and out-of-wedlock births are all down. Prosperity has increased. Everybody's pretty satisfied with the state of the nation.

While some things need to be changed, voters almost unanimously desire reform on subjects like campaign finances and health care. This allows politicians to take pretty homogeneous stances on those issues. All that's left are a few divisive subjects like gun control and abortion.

But here the positions still stay in the middle of the road. With voter apathy pervasive in America, so few people come to the polls that a backlash against an extreme position can cost a candidate an election. It is safer, then, to avoid offending people at all costs. Candidates do take positions on controversial issues, but the most successful ones have taken stands so inoculated against possible offense that they have almost no bite at all.

Platform homogeneity means that something else has to separate candidates. If the message that a candidate explicitly sends is identical to that of every other person running, the difference has to appear in the subtext of the campaign -- the personality that the candidate projects. A politician has to convey to his electorate that he can and will empathize with their situation: That no matter what the differences in station and personal history, he can bridge the gap to understand and satisfy their needs. To win, a candidate must seem to be the most open and accessible. In this department, Gore is sorely lacking.

His inability to convey emotion would be enough of a problem by itself. Whereas Bill Bradley presents voters with the impression of a warm, engaging person, Gore is stuck with his "wooden man" image. If the two appear similar in other respects, more voters will end up going to Bradley. This trend already has begun in New Hampshire, according to a recent CNN/Time poll, and is likely to continue as more people get exposed to Bradley through television commercials and debates. And Gore will face an even larger problem should he end up in a race against Elizabeth Dole or George W. Bush, both of whom have friendly and accessible campaign personas.

Gore, however, faces another challenge in that he has to deal with guilt by association. His time in the Clinton White House has linked Gore irrevocably with a person most people feel to have terrible character. Thus, he starts off having to fight a negative impression, one that makes it difficult for him to get crossover voters from the Republican Party. And without charisma, Gore goes into that fight unarmed. He cannot reverse the judgments people have already made about him.

The movement of politicians to the middle of the road means that a campaign no longer can stand on policy alone. No platform, however strong, can carry a campaign. The ability to make an impression on voters with personality will become critical. Charisma is the key, and without it Gore can't cross the threshold to the presidency. Even if he can shout across it.

(Sparky Clarkson's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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