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How I Got Over My Al Gore-a-phobia

"Bush is where we were in August, when we had to fix the campaign," says Coelho, meaning Bush will get his campaign up and running again. That's their thinking: Bush wins the Republican nomination, and they'll be in good shape. Gore is the clear contrast gainer. Bush is a gift.

"We've gotten through the persona issue," Coelho adds. They're not yet thinking of what an incredible problem it would be if they get McCain.

I am bumped up from the press plane to Air Force Two with the handful of pool reporters. The schedule is that the press plane will fly directly to Columbus, for the rally at Ohio State, and Air Force Two will swing down to Washington and pick up Gore and then head to Columbus. Even stuck sitting on the tarmac on line with every other plane ("Without the VP aboard, we're just like any other Cessna," says Marty Kasindorf, the pool reporter from USAToday), we're able to make up the time and get back close to the published schedule.

I've been promised face time on the Washington-to-Columbus leg (and I don't think I'm the only one), but Gore stays shut in his compartment, a sort of handicapped-bathroom-type arrangement on Air Force Two.

The other pool reporters spend the flight trying to reconstruct what might have happened on Gore's commercial airline flight.

"Sleepless from a post-midnight flight from New Hampshire and a predawn wake-up call . . ." the AP reporter, Sandra Sobieraj, dictates into her cell phone. Later, working the phone, she comes up with the fact that Gore himself stowed his tray and returned his seat to an upright position.

The Columbus stop is billed as a 3,000-person rally, but really there aren't more than 500 or 600 people -- the room couldn't have held too many more. Lots of kids from different Ohio schools have been bused in -- I see some Kenyon and Dennison sweatshirts; on the stage, there's an Up With People-type group of kids in Gore regalia.

A plump girl steps to the microphone: "Welcome to Ohio State, where the vice-president of the United States will talk to our student body."

Then the Columbus mayor introduces Gore.

The loud music has a heavy bass line, and Gore, coming through the crowd and onto the stage, is trying to move to it. It's awful -- or endearing.

He is wearing cowboy boots. It's hard to figure the message of this look, the boots with the Italian no-vent suit (must be inside-the-Beltway fashion; on the bus, they're still talking about last week's too-tight jeans).

He hugs the plump girl. It's a curdling hug, painful for him and for the girl and for the audience. He hugs the mayor, and this is horrible, too. He can't wait to let go (as opposed to Coelho, who is working the edges of the room, getting the local pols into no-escape headlocks). He doesn't know where to put his hands. He knows he's in someone else's space.

You can make a case for Gore's lack of seductiveness -- that it might be good to get the nation off its sex-appeal binge. But it's pretty terrible to watch.

"Thank you," he says into the microphone to the mayor, using some exaggerated kind of syllabification (tha-ank gets two syllables, for instance), "for your support, your enthusiasm, and for the leadership of this great city -- and hello, Buckeyes!"

He could obviously give a great Power Point presentation. It's just that he's not good at being everybody's friend. I don't think he gets much from the adulation (and, accordingly, doesn't get much adulation). The problem is, he's trying to be Clinton. This is Clinton shtick, down to the boots, I suddenly realize. The hugging, the beat, the coming through the crowd.

Is that what being vice-president is all about? You just lose yourself in the other guy? Or is it that Clinton has reinvented how politicians have to behave -- and everybody in this campaign is doing Clinton (McCain most successfully)?

Now, there is an argument here, if you're a sucker for subtlety, that the more sincere you truly are, the harder it is to mask your insincerity.

Gore speaks for about twenty minutes and says nothing remotely of any interest. It's disconcerting how hard he works at it, too, as though the job is to make it even more vacant. Undoubtedly, he thinks this cornball stuff is communication. You'd hate him for his condescension if he didn't seem so exposed by it.

He does five local TV interviews after the speech.

I'm staring at Gore (intently, rudely actually), and he winks at me. Yes. There it is: an ounce of irony. I'll take it.

His demeanor in front of the cameras for these little local interviews is all fifties TV dad -- good guy, tolerant, not a lot of fun (no sex). The practiced calm and bedside manner voice are a little frightening.

"I want to fight for . . ."

"Prosperity means we have a responsibility . . ."

"I have always supported . . ."

"I want to make available resources at the local level . . ."

Then, between camera setups, he looks at me again, and grimaces. A gargoyle grimace. For a half-second, his tongue is out, hangdog, or retch-like, to the side.

I think: There's someone in there.

In the only vaguely human question of the five interviews, a reporter asks, "What pets do you have?"

He misses a beat -- it becomes nearly a blush. "I'm only thinking," he says, "about winning." But then, realizing that's no answer, he says he has two dogs and Tipper's mother has a cat, and she lives with them, so, he says, he has a cat.

More telling, I note, is that he lives with his mother-in-law.