Gore's Summer Surprise

To the press and public, the turning point in the Gore campaign was the announcement of Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman, on Aug. 7, a week before the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. But the true turnaround began earlier that summer with the arrival of two old Democratic hands, Commerce Secretary Bill Daley and pollster Stanley Greenberg. They brought order and vision to a campaign that was notably lacking in each.

At 12:15 on the morning of June 15, Daley, who likes to go to sleep early, was awakened by the vice president, who was sleeping very little. Gore asked Daley to take over his struggling campaign. Daley suggested they get together the next day and talk about it over a cup of coffee. "Why don't you get up and make a cup of coffee?" Gore replied. Some 45 minutes later Daley had signed on as campaign chairman, replacing the exhausted, ailing Tony Coelho.

The son of Chicago's legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley, "Billy" Daley, the last of "da mare's" seven children, once told a reporter, "When my dad was alive, everybody was in the shadows." Daley learned to thrive there, always self-effacing and genial, but shrewd and effective. He cites the wisdom of his mother ("Keep your ears open and your mouth shut") and the prudence of his father ("Take a small job. It'll last longer"). Working behind the scenes, he helped get his brother Rich elected mayor of Chicago in 1989 and helped Bill Clinton carry Illinois in 1992. His reward was supposed to be a high-ranking job in the Clinton administration, but because he was a white male and Clinton wanted to make a show of hiring minorities, he had to wait five years to claim a cabinet seat. Well aware of the sacrifices involved, Daley was in no particular hurry to take the job of running Gore's campaign. He had ducked the job in the spring of 1999: at that time Gore hadn't asked Daley to be campaign chairman only because he knew the answer would be no. But now Gore was truly desperate, and the Democrats' presidential candidate had run out of choices.

Daley was a steadier hand than the intense and polarizing Coelho, who had already done the dirty work of pruning away the overpriced consultants. In June, when Coelho wearily turned over his burdens, he told Daley that he "wouldn't be the bad guy. That job's already done." Daley was free to be a calm but firm presence. By long practice, he had learned to manage big egos while swallowing his own pride. He was not in the thrall of fast-talking hired guns like media advisers Bob Shrum and Carter Eskew, but he saw no need to bump chests with them, either. He was in some ways a working-class version of Jim Baker, the wealthy Houston lawyer who served in both the White House and the cabinet of the Reagan and Bush administrations. It was often hard to find the fingerprints of managers like Baker and Daley. But everything seemed to work better under their domain.

Stan Greenberg's arrival in the Gore camp in July went largely unnoticed at the time. It seemed to be just another shift of pollsters in the chronically fractious Gore operation. But Greenberg was able to give the campaign an ideological direction that was more focused than Gore's earlier oscillations between old-fashioned populist and "New Democrat." Greenberg had made his name in Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign by figuring out how to win back blue-collar Democrats who had defected to Reagan in the 1980s. But he had taken some of the blame for the loss of the House to the GOP in '94, and he had been trumped by the up-and-coming Mark Penn in Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign. Greenberg had gone off to successfully advise center-left candidates abroad, including Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Ehud Barak of Israel. Greenberg had not wanted to get involved in the presidential race, but in early July he had been summoned by Bob Shrum, with whom he had worked on the Barak campaign. Shrum told Greenberg that the themeless Gore campaign badly needed a pollster with a big picture, a visionary who could see the campaign not just in terms of voting blocs but as a story line. At the time Greenberg was counting the days to an Italian vacation with his wife. A little grudgingly, he agreed to cobble together the survey data to see if he could discern some kind of road map.

On the last Tuesday in July, Greenberg went to Shrum's memento-strewn office on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown (among Shrum's trophies: a speech drafted, but not used, for Clinton to apologize for lying about Monica Lewinsky). Present were Shrum, campaign chairman Daley and Eskew. Tad Devine, a senior Gore adviser, was listening by phone from Nashville. Greenberg had noticed something that should have been obvious by then, but wasn't: the average voter didn't know much about Al Gore, other than the fact that he was Clinton's number two. When voters found out more about the candidate's background, Greenberg told the group, Gore's numbers jumped 17 points. George W. Bush had been defined as the son of a president, from a political family. Voters think that the scions of political families are honest, Greenberg explained, because they come by their ambition honestly--other people do it for power or money. When voters learned that Gore was the son of a senator, they saw it as a positive. Likewise Gore's service in Vietnam. The fact that he had volunteered when he could have easily ducked was a big plus.

Filling in the details of Gore's past was simple: Gore could do it himself through his speech at the convention, watched by 20 million people, and through the biographical video shown that night. Making just the right economic pitch was trickier. Talking up the prosperity of the Clinton years was not enough. Voters wanted to hear about the future, not the past. Gore needed to assure working families who felt left behind that they, too, could share in the good times. Encouraged by his regular pollster, Harrison Hickman, Gore had already been pushing a traditional populist line: "I'm for the people, not the powerful!" Gore should hit that same note in his convention speech, Greenberg argued. But gradually he should develop a more inclusive populist theme and not just rerun the tired tape of class warfare. The old-style politics of resentment was better suited to bad economic times. Good times called for a more upbeat message. Gore should strike familiar populist notes to bring home the Democratic base at the convention. Then he should widen his tent and go after middle-class voters as well as the working class.

Gore's brain trust was convinced by Greenberg's arguments. He laid them out that day and then again in greater depth and with more certainty on the Sunday before the Democratic convention in mid-August. After returning from a much-interrupted vacation in the Dolomites, Greenberg had run surveys that seemed to back up his strategic hunch. In Los Angeles, the pundits would make much of Gore's populism in his convention speech, in which he used the words "working families" nine times. Only gradually would they recognize that Gore's populism was carefully calibrated. In his speeches, the Democratic nominee would go after certain unpopular special interests, like drug companies and insurance companies, but there was no talk of across-the-board economic leveling or soaking the rich. And after Labor Day, Gore would offer his economic blueprint in a speech that mentioned "middle-class families" 12 times and "working families" only once.

The Republicans had inadvertently bolstered the Democrats' new strategy with what Devine thought was a strategic blunder at their Philadelphia convention. Bush had emphasized that times were good, but that the Clinton-Gore administration had squandered the chance to make them better. Focus groups run by the Gore campaign "laughed out loud" at this argument, said Devine. Bush's feel-good talk merely worked to boost the percentage of Americans who thought the country was on the "right track." Of all Gore's advantages, perhaps none was more important than a piece of simple logic: if eight years with a Democrat in the White House had produced peace and prosperity, why elect a Republican?

Gore himself played the most important role in his summer resurrection. He may have been a maladroit campaigner, but he remained tireless. Through the bleakest of times, Gore's staffers were sustained by the candidate's drive and force of will. "I make fun of Gore sometimes," said media adviser Bill Knapp. "He has the most incredibly straight posture of any person I know. But the truth is, he's a stand-up guy." Gore pushed himself--and his staff--beyond the level of normal human endurance. He seemed to substitute exercise for sleep: he ordered a treadmill brought to his hotel rooms and carried hand weights with his luggage. Like Bush, Gore could become testy when he missed a chance to run or pump iron. But unlike Bush, he never seemed to rest. Gore's staff was quick to point out these contrasts and sharpen them with spin. As vice president, Gore traveled with his own "football," a briefcase, carried by a military aide, containing the codes for a nuclear launch. Bush's aides also carried a briefcase, claimed Gore's acerbic spokesman Chris Lehane. It contained Bush's pillow.

Gore demanded to be overscheduled. Lehane recalled the night of the Iowa caucuses: the Gore campaign took the red-eye to New Hampshire, where Gore did the morning shows at 6:30. Lehane and the others grabbed the next two hours--downtime on the schedule--to try to sleep. He and his roommate, Michael Feldman, a Gore adviser, buried their pagers and mobile phones and had just about nodded off when there was a knock on the door. They ignored it. Then another knock. Lehane shouted an expletive. More knocking, insistent now. It was Gore. "Are you going to let me in?" he demanded peevishly. "We've got to seize the moment. What about this MTV event?" Gore could be picky and caustic, but he also enjoyed sendups and practical jokes. When Feldman complained to The Washington Post that he couldn't sleep because of Lehane's snoring, Gore told them he was giving them his suite. He ushered them into the room, where he had ordered a canopy bed for Feldman and a crib for Lehane. The stunt was goofy and a little lame. But the staff appreciated Gore's joking; his attempts at humor helped keep up morale.

As the convention approached, so, too, did Gore's vice presidential selection--and it was clear that this was another opportunity to inject some excitement into the listless campaign. It had been Gore himself, not an adviser, who first put Joe Lieberman on the list of vice presidential prospects back in February, along with about 40 other names, 25 of them mostly for show. And it had been Gore who kept focused on Lieberman when the list narrowed to four names: the others were Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, retiring Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska (both charismatic Vietnam War heroes) and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Kerry and Kerrey were a little too independent-minded for Gore, too likely to pursue their own presidential ambitions. Lieberman appealed in part, as Tony Coelho saw it, because he would be Gore's Gore, completely loyal and grateful for the chance to serve. (Indeed, when Lieberman was chosen, he exclaimed, "It's a miracle!") Edwards, young and extremely telegenic, was favored by some of the consultants, especially Bob Shrum. A very rich ex-trial lawyer, Edwards had been one of Shrum's most lucrative clients when he ran for the Senate in 1998. According to one of Gore's top advisers, Shrum was so confident that Gore would pick Edwards that the consultant sent his wife, Oatsie, out shopping with Edwards's wife to pick out the right campaign outfits.

Edwards would have offered a youthful, robust contrast to the pale and tight-lipped Cheney. But as Gore huddled with aides in a Nashville hotel room on Aug. 6, he was looking for a grand gesture, a choice that would be remembered by history. For all his political caution and tendency to hold up his finger to the wind, Gore sees himself as a forceful and visionary leader, capable of making a bold stroke. Shrum and Eskew were present, along with Bill Daley and Tad Devine and Gore's wife, Tipper. It was clear "within the first four minutes," said one of the participants, that Gore would pick Lieberman. There was no discussion of the fact that Lieberman was an Orthodox Jew. It was understood that his religion would stir latent anti-Semitism among some voters. The campaign did no specific polling on prejudice, but other research suggested Lieberman's faith was not a negative.

Lieberman's own advisers were sure that the party's left-wing interest groups would veto their man for his criticism of affirmative action and his other centrist stands. But during the vetting process, Lieberman was never asked to defend his deviations from the Democratic Party line. True, some of Gore's advisers worried that Lieberman's attacks on Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal would turn off the Democratic base. The Gore campaign did test this assumption with a poll question and found no cause for worry.

Gore, for his part, was only too happy to make a choice that would dramatize his separation from the president. The campaign also guessed, correctly, that picking Lieberman was a move that would finally resonate well with the media elite. When Gore and his aides settled on Lieberman late that Sunday night, they decided to leak the decision to a few major TV reporters at 6, in time to alert the morning shows. No one bothered to inform the White House.

The president's aides were irritated to learn about Gore's selection from their television sets. It seemed like an unnecessary slap at the president. Everything Gore does, thought one of the president's top lieutenants, is about distancing himself from Clinton. The vice president seemed to think that he had to beat Bill Clinton before he beat Bush, and that's why he was having trouble with his campaign. This aide was not shy about telling the president. "They're still thinking too much about us and not enough about George Bush," he said to Clinton that morning. Clinton shrugged him off. "I don't think you're right," the president said. He seemed enthusiastic about Gore's choice. When Gore finally called him on the phone at about 9, Clinton told the veep, "Al, I'm proud of you. You made the bold decision just like you always told me to make."

But when Gore and Lieberman failed to mention Clinton's name at the official announcement on Tuesday, Clinton's mood soured. Clinton remained bewildered by Gore's clumsy campaign and his veep's unwillingness to seek help from the White House. Flying to a fund-raiser in Los Angeles in June, he had given Billy Daley, Gore's new campaign manager, a long discourse on the merits and demerits of various vice presidential prospects. "I can help here," Clinton had said, a little plaintively.

His help, it became increasingly clear, was not particularly welcome in the vice president's counsels, and Bill Clinton had to find new outlets for his restless political energy. An important one was the Senate race of his wife. The president threw himself enthusiastically into Hillary's campaign in New York. is advisers suspected that by reversing roles--by helping his wife do what she really wanted to do--he was relieving some guilt. At Hillary's February 2000 announcement for the Senate, Clinton had paced backstage like "one of those skating coaches at the Olympics wondering whether she'll make that triple axel," observed Tony Bullock, chief of staff to retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Bullock offered the president a seat. Clinton declined. "I'm nervous as hell," he said. In true Clinton fashion, Hillary's speech was still unwritten the morning she was supposed to deliver it. The president first played courier, carrying drafts back and forth between Hillary, holed up in her new house in Chappaqua, N.Y., and her speechwriters, who were working in the garage. Finally Clinton decided to short-circuit the process, sitting down himself at the keyboard to tap in Hillary's edits. He was obviously enjoying himself.

At times Clinton was a little too involved in his wife's campaign. After Hillary was accused of having made an anti-Semitic remark many years before, the president called the New York Daily News to leap to her defense. He failed to tell Hillary, however. Her reaction when she learned about the call, according to one aide, was to splutter, "What?!" The aide said to her, "It's never boring around you." Answered the First Lady: "Imagine what it's like to be me." Still, Hillary unquestionably benefited from her husband's close attention. At the very beginning of the race, with most pundits predicting defeat for Hillary, Clinton bequeathed to his wife his pollster, Mark Penn, who had helped turn around Clinton's 1996 presidential re-election campaign by discovering "soccer moms" as the key voting group. Looking at the data, Penn quickly identified what he called Hillary's "white-women problem." Suburban housewives were cool to the First Lady, suspecting that she was more interested in advancing her career than helping them. "Too many women don't like Hillary," admitted a top adviser. "They think she's grasping for power, and that she shouldn't have stayed with [the president]. Professional women feel they got where they are with a real struggle, and they don't think she paid her dues, that she's piggybacking on him."

For his part, President Clinton blamed an old bugaboo, the "vast right-wing conspiracy" out to get the Clintons. In late July, with polls showing Hillary running slightly behind Rep. Rick Lazio, Clinton exhibited his whiny side. He told a Miami radio station, "Everybody that always hated me all those years and were so mean to me, they've all transferred their anger to her now. It's almost as if they've got one last chance to beat me." Behind the scenes, Clinton was more disciplined and useful, talking to Hillary several times a day and exchanging memos and speech drafts. "B., what do you think of this?" Hillary would scrawl, and back would come a flurry of marginal notations, along with "I love you. B." A Clinton adviser dryly remarked to John Harris of The Washington Post, "This is a relationship that thrives on distance."

With his wife away on the road or in Chappaqua, Clinton was restless in the White House. Chief of staff John Podesta told staffers he didn't want to hear the word "legacy," lest Clinton be too readily branded a lame duck. But Clinton's place in history was very much on his mind as he frenetically traveled around the nation and the world, playing the role of would-be peacemaker and drumming up cash for Democrats. The president was determined to avenge the Newt Gingrich revolt of 1994 and win back Congress. "He'll kill himself next year raising money and framing the issues," one of his top aides had predicted in December 1999. He hugely enjoyed the perks of office, the travel on Air Force One, the feeling of being at center stage. White House staffers marveled at Clinton's inexhaustible energy. "Talk to the Secret Service," said Lynn Cutler, a former White House aide. "He leaves every event late. He's squeezing the last drop out of everything. I don't blame him, and in the end it helps Gore. I look at him and I wonder how he'll manage the transition," she added. "This is all he's ever done in his life."

On the eve of the Los Angeles convention, Gore was angry when The New York Times reported that the First Couple would be soaking up all the attention--and money for Hillary's campaign--at a series of glittery fund-raisers with the showbiz crowd. The Gore campaign insisted on vetting the president's speech on the first night. The president was welcome to speak about the past, but he was told to leave the future to Gore. At the request of the Gore camp, Clinton's speechwriters tried to stitch in a few positive anecdotes about Gore as a leader and a man. Clinton practiced saying, "On the really tough decisions, like sending our young men and women out in harm's way, I always relied on Al..." But he sounded too patronizing, and the line was cut.

Clinton milked his valedictory for all it was worth. The idea of filming Clinton making his long, last walk into the arena, through the winding corridors backstage toward the sound of rising tumult, was borrowed from the duel scene in the movie "High Noon" (not, as was widely suggested, from the facing-the-lions scene in the more recent Russell Crowe film "Gladiator"). The 1952 Gary Cooper Western was an old Clinton favorite; the president owned a copy of the original screenplay. The inspiration to stage such a dramatic entrance came from one of Clinton's Hollywood friends, producer Harry Thomason. The original plan was to scroll a list of the president's 25 greatest achievements on the TV screen while Clinton made his way onstage. Thomason had also hoped that Al Gore would agree to join the president in mid-procession. The two men would enter together, a tableau of party unity. But Gore balked at appearing with Clinton, and the networks refused to list Bill's greatest hits. ("We're not going to be part of Harry Thomason's stunt," declared NBC's Tim Russert.) So it was Clinton, alone and a little self-conscious.

On the convention floor that night, Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart watched the big screen as Clinton came rolling down the corridor backstage. What are we doing here? he wondered to himself. He could tell from Clinton's eyes that the president had some qualms, too. (According to Thomason, Clinton was grumbling under his breath, "Harry, this is the worst idea you've ever had. Where the hell are we going?") But suddenly Clinton turned the last corner and the scene was backlit. As he proceeded into the spotlights of the darkened arena he loomed up, a towering figure for the ages. Or so it seemed to the Democratic faithful, who roared their welcome.

Gore wrote most of his own convention speech --and made sure everyone knew it. Shrum, one of the best wordsmiths in politics, tried a long draft that was full of soaring rhetoric but riddled as well with invective against Bush. Gore stripped out both the high-flown phrases and the attacks on his opponent. The focus groups showed that voters didn't want to hear Gore sounding negative, at least not yet. Most voters thought both campaigns had stayed off the low road so far. It was Gore who wrote in perhaps the most important line of the address: "I stand here tonight as my own man." Gore's speech was criticized for its pedestrian, even plodding quality, but it was unmistakably his own work. Shrum had wanted a thematic speech; Gore ended up writing a long laundry list of specific policy proposals. The pundits would be bored, but the voters would listen.

Gore moves at his own pace. No one on his staff dares to hurry him along, the way George Stephanopoulos or Harold Ickes could push President Clinton. "There's no one with a whip and chair who can force the process," said Michael Sheehan, who had the unenviable task of playing speaking coach to the veep. By the last day of the convention, the evening of Gore's acceptance speech, Sheehan was already worn out from trying to coax order from the Democrats' unruly speakers. He was particularly annoyed by several women senators, whom aides privately called "the divas" because each seemed determined to suck up more time than the others. "They were worse than Diana Ross and the Supremes," said one aide. Sheehan was surprised when Gore failed to show up on time for rehearsal on the day of his speech. The speech was way too long--an hour and 20 minutes. To keep it moving, Sheehan coached Gore to "surf the applause"--to talk over the cheering. It works better on TV, Sheehan explained. His attitude was, 'Screw the hall'. Gore had stuffed his speech with "real people" stories, including a long and windy passage about the physicist Stephen Hawking, who had overcome physical ailments to achieve greatness. Shrum and Eskew had been begging Gore for a week to take out the story. In desperation they appealed to Tipper, the court of last resort. The candidate's wife agreed that the story was a digression. "Out," she ruled. "Isn't this a good story?" Gore appealed. "Not for a convention speech," she replied.

As he arrived at the podium, Gore got the viewers' attention with a passionate kiss. The simple act of kissing his wife may have done more to appeal to undecided women voters than all of Stanley Greenberg's polls and position papers. In a few seconds (it seemed more like a few minutes), Gore had somehow transformed himself from ponderous panderer to sex symbol. Top campaign aides adamantly insisted that The Kiss, at least its heat, was spontaneous. As rehearsed, Gore was supposed to stop to hug Tipper as he came onstage. But his ardor for the task was unexpected, or at least unscripted. Tipper, the aides pointed out, looked genuinely taken aback. The public display of affection was not all that surprising to staffers who traveled with Gore. The Gores are well known for being demonstrably affectionate with each other, sometimes to the discomfort of those around them. Tipper frequently refers to her husband as the "hunk" and revealed to one interviewer that at home he sleeps in the nude. Aboard the campaign plane, aides would snigger when the Gores slipped into pajamas and closed the door to their private compartment.

Even his grumpy press corps noticed the difference in Gore when he left the convention. In a riverboat ride down the Mississippi, the candidate was much less stiff than usual. He was also less standoffish to the press. On the night of Tipper's 52d birthday, he invited the 100 or so traveling reporters to an off-the-record party. One of the three "Spice Girls," Ceci Connolly of The Washington Post, objected to going off the record. "I can't do that," she protested. "I don't think that's right." But most of the scribes headed on deck to dance and down beers with the vice president and his wife, who after a few Michelobs were rocking along to Springsteen and boomer crooners like Creedence Clearwater Revival. The Post's Connolly sat below decks, reading and chatting with the aides and the Secret Service. Finally Gore went down to cajole her to join the fun. She ran upstairs and jumped into the center of the dance floor, eliciting a whoop and a holler from the candidate and Tipper.

The Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" was blowing through the moist air when the steamboat pulled into the last lock and dam before Clinton, Iowa. It was 10:30 p.m., and Gore was running two hours late. More than 300 people stood on the riverbank waving and yelling. Campaign staff and journalists alike waved back and belted out the "Brown Sugar" chorus yell, "Yeah, yeah, yeah--wooo!" A reporter waving to the crowd shouted out, "This is the 'our lives are cooler than your lives' wave."

Gore joined in the joking. From the flying bridge, holding a squeaky bullhorn, he called out to no one in particular onshore, "Nice shirt!" He was mimicking Clinton, who used to connect with audiences on the stump by picking out a man and saying, "Nice tie!" Gore gave his deadpan look to the reporters, who laughed. Some reporters seemed surprised by their new pal Al. "He's so real, such a regular guy," said a scribe from the right-wing Washington Times. "I don't know why he doesn't do this more often," said another reporter. An hour later Gore gave a stirring speech, hot and angry at moments, soft and humble at others, to a midnight crowd of 3,000 that had waited up for him in a little Iowa river town. A TV producer walked back to the bus wiping tears from her eyes. She was obviously embarrassed that she'd let herself be so moved.

in early august, as a good-will gesture after the GOP convention, George W. Bush flew out to John McCain's ranch in Arizona. Aboard Bush's plane, McCain's chief strategist, John Weaver, had--without thinking--pulled a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich off the snack cart and eaten it. Bush came aboard the plane and asked the flight attendant for his PB&J. She had to tell him it was gone. "It's gone?" Bush said, disbelieving and suddenly angry. "Who ate my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich?" After a minute Weaver impishly raised his hand. "I did," he said. "Fine," said Bush. "Don't eat any more of his food," McCain cracked, sotto voce. A few people chuckled, and Bush returned to his seat to pout.

George Bush's thin skin was showing again. Chatting with Weaver a week after the GOP convention in Philadelphia, Bush went on about how he couldn't stand certain members of the press, how he resented having to schmooze with them almost as much as he hated fund-raising. He told Weaver that he hated protesters on the stump because they distracted him. It didn't take much to set Bush off, thought Weaver. Naturally, Weaver told a few reporters about his conversation with his former political foe, and the word got back to the press corps that Bush was privately contemptuous of some reporters he had appeared to befriend. Many of them were already beginning to tire of Bush's constant stroking and to suspect that it was insincere. Chastised by their own colleagues for going too easy on the GOP candidate, the press was ripe for one of its periodic mood swings.

Bush couldn't believe how quickly the press turned on him after the Democratic convention. Maybe he had gotten a little tangled up on that speech on taxes at a fund-raiser in Des Moines on Aug. 21, mixing up his billions and trillions. It was a perfectly honest mistake, Bush figured, and minor at that. But when he went back to the press section of the plane to clarify his remarks, he found he was no longer in friendly territory. Further attempts to explicate his tax plan drew mocking coverage on the air and in print, as reporters dredged up earlier malapropisms, like referring to "handcuffs" as "cuff links" and "vital" as "vile." Bush felt betrayed. After a particularly withering segment on ABC's "World News Tonight," the candidate bitterly complained about the ABC producer John Berman, whom Bush held responsible for his rough treatment. Berman had been traveling with the Bush campaign for a year and mulling box scores every day with the candidate during baseball season. "How could Berman do that to me?" Bush wondered aloud, clearly hurt and irritated.

Several more days of caustic press coverage made Bush seem surly and insecure. At a press conference after a meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox, he told a hundred reporters, "Can you make your questions short? I've got a plane to catch." Since the plane was his own, and he was heading back to the ranch for some R&R, reporters assumed that what he was mostly interested in catching was a nap.

At campaign headquarters in Austin, most staffers wanted to believe that Gore's 10-point bounce out of the convention was temporary, that the numbers would settle down to show Bush safely ahead again by Labor Day. Matthew Dowd, Bush's chronically pessimistic strategist in charge of polling, insisted on playing Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" on his office stereo until the numbers corrected themselves. When a Gallup poll showed Bush ahead 46-45 on Aug. 28 after trailing for 10 straight days, Dowd began playing the spiritual "I Saw the Light."

He was seeing a false dawn. Fred Steeper, the veteran outside pollster who reported to Dowd, had been watching Bush's numbers steadily deteriorate since midsummer. Bush was stumbling, said Steeper on Sept. 1, but "the biggest thing that's changed is Gore. The public has a different sense of him, and that's driving the numbers." Steeper saw an analogy to Bush's father, who had gone into the conventions behind Michael Dukakis in 1988 but had emerged ahead, able to claim that he was his own man and not just Ronald Reagan's. Gore was on the same track, Steeper told a reporter. "Plus, he's got peace and prosperity at his back..." Steeper's voice tailed off. "This is getting a little scary."

Dowd, too, began seeing bad news in the numbers. On Sept. 3, over lunch at Schlotzsky's, an Austin eatery near Bush headquarters, Dowd laid out a warning to campaign strategist Karl Rove. The Kiss had worked, Dowd said. Gore's "favorables" were up in Bush's range. By some 20 points, voters now believed the country was on the "right track." Why would they vote for a change? "Basically, if they like us and they like him, then he wins," said Dowd. "We need a debate." Something to shake things up. Rove agreed. He was starting to think a debate would be a good idea, a way of contrasting Bush's amiable nature with the bullying Gore.

But Gore did not stumble. Instead, Bush put his foot in his mouth again. At a Labor Day rally, he displayed his snide side by remarking to running mate Dick Cheney that Adam Clymer of The New York Times was a "major-league a-----e." "Big time," agreed Cheney. The mike was open, and Bush was immediately at the center of one of those campaign "flaps" that can obsess reporters for days while only mildly engaging the voters. Bush tried to spin that he was a "plain-spoken" man, and his aides devoutly hoped that the candidate would actually win votes for revealing his true feelings about a member of the liberal Eastern press establishment. Privately, Bush felt no remorse. "What a bunch of prudes," he said when reporters clucked over his profanity. To Cheney he said with a shrug, "We'll just have to be more careful." Later, in a chat in the back of the plane, Bush allowed, "Sometimes you just have to vet." "Governor," interjected R. G. Ratcliff, a reporter from the Houston Chronicle, "I think the word is 'vent'." Bush gave him his "you got me" smirk.

The flap over Bush's remark was trivial, yet in a telling way it undercut one of his strongest appeals, that of a genial, upbeat outsider determined to restore civility to the rude business of politics. Bush's bar-talk crudeness may have been particularly off-putting to a key group of swing voters, suburban mothers bothered by the coarseness of pop culture and its impact on their children. The Gores' Convention Kiss had appealed to these voters not only because the often robotic vice president seemed surprisingly passionate but also because the woman he was kissing was his wife of 31 years. Now George Bush was playing the role of lout.

This and other emanations from the Bush camp were closely monitored by Gore's rapid-response team, jocularly called "the Kitchen." Based in a conference room with a small kitchen, it was always cooking. It followed the same basic rule as James Carville's old "War Room" of 1992: never let a news cycle pass without responding to an attack, or exploiting a gaffe, by your opponent. The Kitchen staff was accustomed to heat. Working for the White House during Whitewater and Monicagate, Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani had been known as the "Masters of Disaster." Their specialty was the document dump: instead of stonewalling and thus further inflaming the press's curiosity, the Masters of Disaster took the opposite approach, deluging reporters with information. The White House scandal team perceived that many reporters are lazy and won't do the hard work of sifting and sorting. In Nashville, Lehane and Fabiani had been joined in the Kitchen by Ron Klain, the vice president's former chief of staff, who had been brought back from temporary exile. (Top aides liked to quote the mantra of the late Bob Squier, the media con-sult-ant who had been in and out of Gore's affections: "When he pushes you out, pretend you're still in because you soon will be.") The Kitchen's top staffers were all Harvard Law School graduates, expert at advocacy and rebuttal. Fabiani actually believed in what he called "prebuttal": blunting an attack before it ever got launched.

In the first week of September, the Kitchen worked behind the scenes to head off criticism of Gore's ties to Hollywood. A reporter from The New York Times had approached the campaign to inquire about an upcoming report from the Federal Trade Commission castigating the entertainment industry for marketing R-rated sex and violence to underage kids. This was a dangerous theme: the Democrats were considered "soft" on Hollywood, in part because the party raised so much money from stars and studio executives. When the Times reporter was briefed on the contents of the report by congressional sources, the Kitchen provided the candidate himself to comment on the report. In his interview with the Times, Gore sternly warned Hollywood that it had six months to crack down on marketing smut to minors, or the Feds might have to step in.

It was a kitchen staffer who tipped off the Times to the infamous rats ad in early September. Fox News had originally reported that the word rats had been inserted into a frame of a Bush TV commercial attacking Gore's attachment to big-government bureaucrats. An executive producer at the network had noticed that the last syllable of "bureaucrats" had been broken off and enlarged on the screen for a millisecond. But the rats ad became a story only when the Times picked it up two weeks later. Lehane personally drove Rick Berke, The New York Times's political correspondent, to a private screening of the ad in Washington. When the reporter failed to detect the fleeting rats message on his first viewing, Lehane got him to look again. The story made page one of the Times and set off a feeding frenzy as other reporters tried to find out if the Bush campaign was engaged in psychological warfare, sending out subliminal messages to voters. Berke was generally evenhanded in his political coverage, but Republicans detected a distinct tilt toward Gore in both The New York Times and The Washington Post as the campaign entered the backstretch after the conventions. Headlines like GORE OFFERS VISION OF BETTER TIMES FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS played off against GOP leaders fret at lapses in Bush's race (The New York Times, Sept. 7).

In Austin, Bush's staff spluttered at the unfairness of it all. In some ways Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, was not an even match for Lehane and Fabiani. Earnest and domineering, -Hughes did not like to schmooze with reporters. She preferred to spin them, mechanically and tediously. Lehane, by contrast, was known to wink at reporters when he was giving them the party line. Hughes's job was made harder by Bush's ongoing struggle with the English language. After the rats ad, the GOP candidate denied any plot to cast a subliminal spell on voters, but he created more fodder for the late-night comics by pronouncing the word "subliminable."

The rats infestation also opened fresh wounds in the relationship between Bush headquarters in Austin and Republican headquarters in Washington. The Republican National Committee, not the Bush campaign, had produced the rats ad. The producer was Alex Castellanos, well trained in the dark arts of negative campaigning (during the 1996 campaign Castellanos had produced a commercial featuring images of Bill Clinton set to the song "You Cheated, You Lied"). Castellanos denied that he had doctored the ad: "I can't rule out that someone thought it was cute--but I didn't do it. It was dumb." Castellanos pleaded the haste of campaigning. "Look, you know how it is. We were getting stuff out the door as fast as we can," he said.

Bush staffers accused Castellanos of sloppiness. Bush himself had been forced to yank an early negative ad produced by the RNC's adman. The 30-second spot appeared to show Gore in a TV interview unctuously insisting that he had never heard Clinton lie. The ad failed to disclose that that clip had been taken from a Gore interview in 1994, well before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. The RNC and Austin were badly out of sync in early September. Responding to Gore's promises to help the elderly with the high cost of prescription drugs, the RNC ran an ad touting Bush's "plan" to do likewise. But Bush, who was trying to focus on education that week, had no health-care plan ready to show reporters. Castellanos blamed the mix-ups on paranoia at Bush headquarters: afraid of leaks, Austin was wary of disclosing much information to the party regulars and their talkative consultants in Washington.

Bush himself deserved most of the blame for the clumsiest mistake of September, the distracting and self-defeating "debate over the debates." In late August, Bush made it clear to reporters in a backgrounder that he regarded the debates as an irritating sideshow. "Debates suck the air out of the campaign," he said matter-of-factly. He much preferred a sit-down, chat-show format to the more formal and traditional debating scenario. "People walk around on egg-shells" in the more formal setting, Bush complained. "My best moments come when I'm more relaxed and I can get a couple of quips in. I don't want it to be too planned and structured."

Bush was heavily influenced by his father's contempt for (and fear of) the presidential debating process. President Bush bitterly complained to anyone who would listen that formal "debates"--standing behind a lectern while a panel of journalists asked questions--were contrived and fake, a game of "gotcha" by reporters vying with candidates armed with carefully rehearsed and poll-tested one-liners. Bush senior's own poor performance in 1992, especially the time he famously looked at his watch--twice--while debating Clinton, had soured his recollections. George W had his own bad memories from the early primary debates in 1999. He had been compelled to look at a worst-moments videotape made by media adviser Stuart Stevens, and he had seen the poor body language: his tense, hunched shoulders; his too-cocky smile and the now infamous smirk; his arms weirdly floating out to the side, like those of a gunslinger about to draw.

The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates had scheduled three debates in the first three weeks of October. Bush wanted instead to meet in a more informal, give-and-take format, sitting around a table, first with NBC's Tim Russert, then with CNN's Larry King. Bush proposed an early start to the debates--mid-September. The vice president had vowed in a TV interview to debate Bush anywhere, any time. This, thought the Bush strategists, put Gore in a mousetrap. If he turned down Bush's challenge to early debates in a fresh format, the Democrat would look like he was running away. Or so Bush figured. But he badly miscalculated. Instead, Gore agreed to both the commission debates and Larry King and Russert, but only if the former came first. Now Bush looked like he was the one ducking.

In the end, he caved in and achieved almost nothing: the all-important first debate, on Oct. 3, would be the traditional kind, standing behind podiums taking questions from a moderator, PBS anchorman Jim Lehrer. The setting--at the University of Massachusetts, Boston--would be a few hundred yards away from one of the Democrats' greatest shrines, the John F. Kennedy Library. Bush succeeded only in wasting a week he badly needed to get back on track.

As Bush and his advisers stumbled, the grumbling in GOP circles in Washington grew louder. Old Republican hands began asking, just as they had back in January when the Bush campaign was floundering in New Hampshire, whether the Austin team was competent enough to win a national election. By basing his campaign back home, Bush had avoided some of the backstabbing and conniving of the Washington hothouse. On the other hand, the Bush team, under the rule of "King" Karl Rove, was perhaps a little too isolated and insular. By his own account, Rove was not reading the papers or watching the news. During this down period he "went on news blackout," he told a reporter. "I'm frankly astonished by the amount of bad advice that comes our way through the phone lines and over the faxes." All those lawyers and lobbyists second-guessing the campaign were more interested in their own careers than in helping George Bush, said Rove.

The man most sensitive to the Beltway buzz was, curiously, George Bush senior. The former president was such a sponge for news and talk shows that his wife, Barbara, required him to get headphones so she wouldn't have to listen to the incessant media chatter in bed. No TV show was too gassy for him to watch, no pundit too pinheaded to quote. The elder Bush had to know who said what and how everything played. He called Rove every day and constantly quizzed those around him: "Have you talked to Karen [Hughes]?" "Have you talked to Karl?" "Have you talked to Joe [Allbaugh]?" "Who have you talked to?" Said Rove: "He has a voracious appetite for campaign gossip and polling gossip."

Bush remained careful not to push political advice onto his son or his top advisers. "You've got to pry big advice out of him. He's really reluctant to say, 'Here's what I think you oughta do'," said Rove. "He knows it's not his role or place or time," said an old friend of the ex-president's. Bush's defeat in '92 was a genuinely humbling experience. "I'm good at raising dough," he told this friend, "but I'm the guy who went from 92 to 37"--92 percent in the polls after the gulf war to 37 percent in the 1992 election. The former president dismissed much of the Washington grumbling as "the usual bitching." At the same time, said the friend, the elder Bush has "a bitch meter that goes off when the noise gets too loud." In early September he told his son's advisers that the alarm was ringing.

In Austin the entire staff--not just Rove--resented the Washington second-guessing and didn't want to hear it. Rove, Mark McKinnon and Dowd joked that they would throw the victory party at the Palm, the Washington steakhouse that was the epicenter of GOP insider sniping. None of the carpers would be invited, they vowed. ("May-be I'll get to park the cars," said Castellanos, sighing.) But by the end of the first week of September, reality was finally dawning in Texas. "It's like a 12-step process," said Dowd. "First you have to admit your problem. We're behind. OK. Now we've got to look at everything from that perspective." To the hit-him-again consultants, the answer, predictably, was to go negative, to savage Gore with ads. "I don't care what we attack, I just want to attack," said Stuart Stevens. Dredging up a pair of old bugaboos--Gore's fund-raising trip to the Buddhist temple and his claim to have invented the Internet--the Republican National Committee launched a sarcastic ad, taunting Gore as a self-righteous phony and a truth-stretcher.

The task of undermining Gore's character had been assigned to the RNC's Castellanos, in the vain hope of affording Bush a measure of insulation by having the Republican Party--and not the Bush campaign itself--play the role of attack dog. Castellanos, already under fire for his earlier ads, was feeling beleaguered. As he saw it, the campaign had blown a chance to savage Gore before the convention. For months Castellanos had been stockpiling ads attacking Gore as another Clinton, weaseling and flip-flopping on the issues. The ads had just sat in a box, unused. Now, Castellanos fretted, it was almost too late: Gore had successfully defined himself as "not Clinton" by picking Joe Lieberman and with his speech at the Democratic convention. Still, on Sept. 11 Castellanos e-mailed Rove and McKinnon in Austin, "I believe the old Al Gore is not far beneath the surface of the new Al Gore. We just have to scratch a bit."

Castellanos's ad failed to swing many voters back to the Bush column. It only stirred up the pundits, who demanded to know how Bush could square attack ads with his promise to restore civility to politics. Bush protested that he was just "needling" his opponent with "good humor." He drew a distinction between governing and running for office; he would improve the "tone" in Washington once he got there. But a campaign--well, he seemed to say, that was different. A little rough-and-ready jousting was to be expected. Bush's equivocations were unpersuasive. The roles had reversed: now it was Bush, not Gore, who was sounding Clintonesque.