Gore Gains Ground in Missouri, Partly Due to Convention Kiss
By DENNIS FARNEY Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
DES PERES, Mo. -- What a difference a kiss makes.
The one Al Gore planted on his wife Tipper at the Democratic National Convention seems to have packed a political wallop. That is the message from a focus group here in the St. Louis suburbs -- swing voters in a swing state. Because of the vice president's uncharacteristic show of emotion, along with a fatherly hug of his daughter Karenna and a solid convention speech, the group is re-evaluating him in a whole new light.
"Al Gore really surprised me. I didn't know he could be so passionate," said Jim Baker, a 54-year-old political moderate who remains undecided but now leans toward Mr. Gore.
"I've sort of fallen out of love with George Bush, and I'm really excited to see Gore step up to the plate," said Ray Meyer, a 44-year-old bank manager.
"A good family man, sincere," added receptionist Barbara Van De Riet, 53, of Mr. Gore. "There's a warmth factor there," chimed in Pam Stork, 35, a sales manager.
Focus groups are too small to constitute a scientific sample but are useful to pollsters in suggesting the emotional response to a candidate by voters. Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who set up the politically balanced group, compares it with others he set up earlier in this campaign year, and senses something new in the air, even though this group remains evenly divided between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush, the Republican governor of Texas.
'Man of Purpose'
"All of a sudden, they're viewing Al Gore as a man of purpose and family values," Mr. Hart said. "The convention seems to have given him more than a bounce in the polls. It established his first real foundation for the general election campaign."
But the new foundation could crumble unless constantly reinforced. Mr. Gore "has no laurels to rest on," cautioned Mr. Hart. For all the group's newfound receptivity to Mr. Gore, Mr. Hart notes that "the old doubts return" when people around the conference table are asked to rate his leadership abilities.
Asked which man would better cope with a severe economic downturn, the group votes 2 to 1 for Mr. Bush. "I'm still concerned that Gore may not have the get-up-and-go," worries Mr. Meyer. "Sometimes he'll have to be tough with other people. He may have to get a little mean." Mr. Meyer isn't certain that Mr. Gore could be mean; he is convinced that Mr. Bush could. Adds Robert Bax, 55, a moderate who remains undecided: "Bush has a lot more body language. His facial features send a message."
In polls released this week, Mr. Gore's postconvention bounce has continued, affecting the math in key states. He has pulled ahead in Minnesota, erased Mr. Bush's lead in Michigan and continued to run comfortably ahead in California. Missouri, where preconvention polls had Mr. Gore trailing, is absolutely essential to him; a true bellwether, Missouri has gone with the winner in every presidential election since 1960. This year, it has hotly contested senatorial, gubernatorial and House races as well. And suburbanites like the group gathered here could well prove decisive in Missouri and nationally.
Balanced Focus Group
This focus group of 14 members is precisely balanced: Seven men, seven women; 12 whites, two African-Americans; six Democrats or leaning that way, four Republicans and four independents. Five now lean to Mr. Gore, five to Mr. Bush, one to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and three remain undecided. These are middle- to upper-middle-class people, most enjoying family incomes in the $50,000 to $75,000-plus range. It is clear that in this time of economic security, they feel free to put more emphasis on character and personality. They like what they saw at the Democratic convention, though they continue to have a generally favorable impression of Mr. Bush as well.
Their composite portrait of Mr. Gore looks something like this: a sincere family man, "bashful" and sometimes "ill at ease" but more passionate than they realized, just starting to look presidential, politically experienced, likely to fight for working families. The Bush portrait: an engaging, likable fellow with natural leadership qualities, more charismatic, but also "smug" and "insincere," too cozy with corporate polluters, a man who also possesses "family values," lacking in foreign policy and national governing experience. ------------------------------------------------------------------------
Missouri has gone with the winner in every presidential election since 1960. Missouri's vote: 1996 Clinton 48% Dole 41% Perot 10% 1992 Clinton 44% Bush 34% Perot 22% 1988 Bush 52% Dukakis 48% 1984 Reagan 60% Mondale 40% 1980 Reagan 51% Carter 44% Anderson 4% 1976 Carter 51% Ford 47% 1972 Nixon 62% McGovern 38% 1968 Nixon 45% Humphrey 44% Wallace 11% 1964 Johnson 64% Goldwater 36% 1960 Kennedy 50% Nixon 49.7% 1956 Eisenhower 49.9% Stevenson 50.1%
Source: Atlas of United States Presidential Elections 1932-1996 ------------------------------------------------------------------------
Eyes light up at the mention of Tipper Gore, who draws such accolades as "a real warm woman" and a "nice lady." The group has a hazier image of Laura Bush, who is newer on the national scene, although one participant sees her as "very supportive" of her husband. But the edge goes to the Republican ticket when it comes to familiarity with running mates. Few in this group felt they knew much at this point about Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, despite his prime-time convention speech. But there is strong admiration for Republican Dick Cheney, who is seen as principled and experienced. "I kind of wish I could have a Gore-Cheney ticket," muses Mr. Meyer.
Bush Enhances Credentials
"George Bush has enhanced his credentials, too," comments pollster Hart after listening to the participants. "He began with two legs to his stool: He's his father's son and there's a perception that he has been able to govern a big state. Now he's added a third leg, Dick Cheney."
Perhaps because they are already prospering, the participants here show little enthusiasm for a centerpiece of the Bush campaign: a $1.3 trillion tax cut over 10 years. Only one panelist singles out taxes as the top issue, while seven name health care. This week, Mr. Bush himself has conceded difficulty in selling his tax plan and has mounted a counterattack. He maintains that many middle-class families will get nothing out of Mr. Gore's tax proposals, but something definite out of his.
Here in the suburbs, Pam Stork, the sales manager, exemplifies the kind of tax-cut skeptic who is frustrating Mr. Bush. "I don't want to see him ... just give [the budget surplus] away," she bursts out.
The panel gives Mr. Gore a clear edge on the environmental issue. Interestingly, Mr. Bush has made inroads on a traditionally Democratic issue, education, while Mr. Gore has blunted a traditionally Republican issue, crime. The coming presidential debates loom large for these panelists, who are eager to see which man holds up best under pressure. But, at least for the moment, Al Gore has succeeded in his top convention objective: persuading voters to take a fresh look at him.
Typical is Robert Bax, 55, an educator. Asked to rate the two candidates on a 10-point scale, with 1 being passionately for Mr. Bush and 10 passionately for Mr. Gore, he says he has moved from a 3 to a 5 -- from leaning toward Mr. Bush to being dead neutral. He offers both advice to Mr. Gore and an assessment of him.
"Have a concept, a dream, hammer it home," he urges. "Gore has substance, but I don't think the concept is clear. [Still], Gore has just started."