Baton Rouge, Louisiana. -- Al Gore isn't talking about running for president these days. He's talking, instead, about family.
In speeches around the country, he recalls the searing memory of a traffic accident that almost killed his youngest child two years ago.
"Our family went through an intense tragedy . . . a traumatic experience," he tells a Democratic Party fund-raising dinner in Baton Rouge, relating how he and his wife Tipper spent a solid month in their son's hospital room and sought out the best medical help in the world to help him regain the use of his right arm.
Lest anyone think he is dwelling on personal details, the senator is quick to give his story a political spin: Republicans don't think employers should be forced to give parents time off from work to cope with family problems, he says. Democrats do.
"We're for the working families in this country," he shouts, to loud applause from the Louisiana partisans.
From parental leave to tax breaks for families with kids to the fate of the earth, Mr. Gore is weaving family themes into his
political message, one that could form the basis of another run for the presidency in 1992.
He'll do things differently than he did the first time he ran, he says. Taking time to develop ideas, he's discovered, is much more important than "going through the motions of candidacy," that mind-numbing sprint to show your face at every event on the campaign trail.
Mr. Gore admits he did a lousy job of getting his message across in his 1988 presidential campaign, which became a struggle for political identity.
As the first baby-boomer to run for president, the Tennessee senator set out as the candidate of "the future" against the politics of "the past." He tried to position himself as the hawk in a field of Democratic doves, a "raging moderate" who wasn't in the pocket of far-left special interests. He was the Southern man who scored big in the Southern Super Tuesday primaries. He was, he claimed in TV ads, "the one Democrat who can win."
He didn't win, of course. And now, as he ponders a second campaign, he's evolving into something else: the Family Man.
Even his vote for the use of force in the Persian Gulf -- he's the only prospective Democratic presidential candidate who so voted, and it sent his political stock soaring last winter -- has been worked into the family theme.
"We drew a line in the sand in Saudi Arabia," he repeats everywhere he goes. "We need to draw a line down Main Street, here at home, and show American families that we're on their side."
Today, with enthusiasm about the gulf war receding (as Mr. Gore had predicted it would) so, too, has some of the excitement about a Gore candidacy.
Though he continues to speak out about the gulf war, and an interventionist foreign policy in general, Mr. Gore's focus is on what he describes as the quagmire back home: economic recession and problems of jobs, health care, crime and the environment.
He's even come up with a new phrase: "the Republican syndrome." It's a domestic relation of the "Vietnam syndrome." It's about the "isolationism of the wealthy and comfortable," and the Bush administration's fear of getting involved in resolving the country's problems.
Mr. Gore, through his writings and speeches, is thinking deeply these days. He's finishing a book about the global environment. He's drawing distinctions between the Democrats and the Republicans over everything from the moral implications of U.S. foreign policy to the long-range future of American society (and American families, of course).
But is he running for president?
"I really and truly haven't made up my mind," he insists, explaining that his decision will depend largely on personal questions. "I have young children. That's an important matter to me. I'm a United States senator. I'm also a father. I will weigh those factors heavily," he says.
Friends say the concern about family is genuine. The serious injury to his son, Albert III, who was struck by a car after the Baltimore Orioles season opener at Memorial Stadium in April, 1989, was "a real big event in his life," says a Gore adviser.
His refusal to commit yet to a 1992 race is leading some former supporters to wonder whether he'll wait until 1996 before running again. At age 43, he presumably can afford to stay out. But if he does get in, his public agonizing about family responsibilities won't hurt. For one thing, it may help humanize Mr. Gore, often perceived as being too stiff, serious and coldly calculating as a politician. For another, an image as a dedicated family man is a potential advantage in an era when the private lives of public men are fair game for scrutiny and revelations of marital infidelity are regarded as newsworthy and potentially damaging.
Finally, his focus on the family fits neatly into the Democrats' challenge of defeating a popular Republican president next year. It's a message, notes one Gore adviser, with potential allure to those swing voters -- women, suburbanites, young parents -- that a Democratic nominee would have to peel away from President Bush's coalition.
Mr. Gore has come to recognize the importance of bringing complex economic issues down to the level of everyday life, friends say. He recently proposed a tax cut for 35 million middle-class families with children, to be paid for by higher taxes on the 6 million richest families, those making at least $75,000 a year.
His "Working Family Tax Relief Act," co-authored with Rep. Thomas Downey, D-N.Y., is an important addition to Mr. Gore's domestic arsenal. Designed more to redistribute income ("fairness") than to promote economic growth, it expands on the theme of economic populism that Mr. Gore arrived at near the end of his 1988 campaign (though he spoke then in terms of "working men and women," instead of families).
Other issues Mr. Gore is likely to pull into a presidential platform -- national health care, education, the environment -- also "end up being family issues," said a Gore adviser.
For now, much of the Gore agenda "is still in the works," says Carter Eskew, a Democratic media consultant and longtime Gore confidant. "It has yet to jell into a quick bite," a catch-phrase or slogan than would express the overall theme of a Gore candidacy.
"He needs to smooth out his vision of what the Gore alternative means in terms of kitchen-table economics," says another longtime adviser, who toiled over development of Mr. Gore's 1988 campaign themes. "The articulation of what he's about, the message, if you will, is step one [of a presidential campaign]. It's critical and it's 75 percent of the work." The other 25 percent, he noted, include fixing Mr. Gore's weaknesses as a candidate: his frequent difficulty in connecting with audiences and his woodenness as a performer on the stump.
Mr. Gore says that he's learned from his 1988 mistakes and that a short campaign would benefit someone, like himself, who has done it before. His unwillingness to say publicly if he's running could be a sign of his ambivalence. Or it could be a way to shorten the race, remain apart from the field and create the aura of a front-runner.
The other day, several would-be presidential candidates filed into a Washington hotel room so a group of leading Democratic fund-raisers, many of them 1988 Gore backers, could look them over. But Mr. Gore stayed away. While his potential rivals were putting themselves on display that morning, he was conducting business in his Senate office. Among the appointments, an aide said, was a meeting with Michael Gross, the actor, who played the father on the television series "Family Ties."