- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

The sartorial saga of Vice President Al Gore continues.

These days, the direction of Mr. Gore's part and the cut of his trousers get as much coverage as his campaign speeches. In the age of 24-hour news, fashion has become political allegory.

We are still witnessing the creation of President Alpha Gore.

Dozens of newspapers and television accounts have chronicled the metamorphosis of Mr. Gore from buttoned-down wonk to earth-toned he-man over the last few months.

Some pondered the seemingly lush new scalp of Mr. Gore, dark hair offsetting noble brow.

Was he presidential? Was he alpha male? Was he a guy in midlife crisis?

Only Naomi Wolf once paid $500 a day to advise Mr. Gore on image matters knows for sure.

"Al Gore has this 'alpha' woman, who came up with 'alpha' male. Now you see Gore wearing alpha-pants and alpha-shirts," noted Eugene McCarthy earlier this year.

Things reached a kind of bizarre crescendo when a full roster of potential candidates sparred in New Hampshire back in January.

ABC's Ted Koppel noted Mr. Gore looked "buff in a particularly snug pair of jeans," while New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called the vice-presidential pants "weirdly tight."

Public transformations, particularly those that emphasize style over substance, can be a tricky thing.

"This is the TV age, when a candidate's appearance sends out important cues about him or her. Al Gore had made a determined effort to change his image, and it looks like his efforts may be working," said CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, noting that Mr. Gore was ahead of George W. Bush in some recent approval ratings.

"Gore has his drawl back. He's trying to get away from any implication he's another insider politician," Mr. Schneider continued. "It has certainly done him no harm."

In showbiz terms, Mr. Gore's change of image could reinforce his independence from the Clinton White House in the eyes of the public. But such change can also be perceived as weakness, eroding sincerity or authenticity.

"Generally speaking, it can be a real negative for a candidate to undergo a physical makeover in mid-campaign," said Ron Faucheux of Campaigns & Elections magazine. "In some ways, Gore has been hurt by it, particularly with so much undue press coverage about changes in his clothes or hair in the past year."

Indeed, Mr. Gore's decision to suddenly start wearing khakis, three-button suits and cowboy boots prompted public commentary from fashion editors as well as curators from the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

"I've worn boots off and on for my whole life," Mr. Gore told reporters who pestered him about it. "The boots I have on today were given to me by my brother-in-law 20 years ago. I just had them resoled."

Mr. Bush's wardrobe, meanwhile, has not drawn much attention. The Republican candidate apparently has not felt compelled to fancy up his closet and remains true to the dark suits, quiet power ties, occasional sweaters and windbreakers he has always worn.

The Cowboy Hall of Fame, incidentally, pronounced cowboy boots as a "natural" for Mr. Bush.

Two years ago, a change in Mr. Gore's behavior also prompted much chittering in the press.

The sedate vice president was once called things like "the anti-Quayle" or "Telemarketer Al." During President Clinton's impeachment travails, Mr. Gore suddenly began shouting and gesticulating during public speeches.

Onlookers described him as a "preacher" and "cheerleader." He was "sounding more like a Democrat," said Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota at the time.

When Mr. Gore moved his campaign headquarters to Tennessee and swore off his K Street connections, he also debuted a new down-home demeanor, full of old fashioned baby-kissing and hand-shaking.

Mr. Gore still has seven months to persuade loyal Democrats, quirky swing voters and big heaps of undecided folks that he is earth tones and all America's leader.

"I don't know that voters are all that interested in the clothes," Mr. Faucheux noted. "In the end, I believe they will look at the issues and the facts, not the fashion."

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