Gore Taps Boom-Time Discontent ; despite Prosperous Economy, There's Room for Outrage - and the Vice President Has Devised a Message That Heeds It

Article excerpt

Throughout history, only a handful of presidential campaigns have caught fire by rallying the poor and down-trodden against the rich and powerful. Even then, such populist appeals resounded only in the darkest economic hours.

Yet today, amid the day-glo glory of the brightest economy in US history, Al Gore is brandishing a new type of populism - a mellowed- out version that's targeted more at the middle class than the poor and is slim on plans for radical change.

It's a calculated risk, one intended in part to portray Republican challenger George W. Bush as aloof and elitist by comparison. The target audience: disillusioned independents and people of any political stripe who feel they work too hard for what they earn.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the brightness of the times, there are strains of public opinion that suggest the Democratic nominee's message may resonate.

*There's outright jealousy of the rich. In a culture saturated with Lotto jackpots, Regis millionaires, and dotcom billionaires,

class envy is bubbling.

*There's the growing rich-poor gap - and even the many middle- classers who say they're financially wobbly.

*As Republican straight-talker John McCain proved, even in times of plenty, there's room for outrage at powerful interests.

"People say they're happy, but they could be happier," says New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett. "They say they're working harder and longer - and that there are other people who make all the money but don't have to work at all." Besides, he adds, in boom times there's just more whining: "When the economy is doing well, they have the luxury of complaining."

Whatever the reason, Mr. Gore seems to be gaining ground with this approach. His post-convention bump in the polls is holding, so far. Surveys in Michigan, Minnesota, and New Jersey, where he had been trailing Mr. Bush, show him ahead or even. He's boosted his once-skinny lead in California.

The Republicans, for their part, are taking steady aim at some of Gore's populist themes. Right after the Democratic convention, Mr. Bush characterized his rival's speech as divisive. And the GOP's new $7 million round of TV commercials - which start running in key states today - takes aim at one of Gore's most trusty populist applause lines, a promise to provide prescription drugs for seniors in the face of pharmaceutical-industry opposition.

Still, 2000 seems an odd time to invoke the populist traditions. It was during a decade-long farm crisis in the late 1800s that the famously flamboyant William Jennings Bryan championed "toilers everywhere," including pitchfork-wielding farmers. He won the Democratic nomination - and lost the presidential race - three times. …


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