NASHUA, N.H. -- Al Gore, preppy casual in an open-necked shirt and blue blazer, has cracked jokes and fielded questions from a group of seniors for more than an hour when a thin, bearded man raises his hand.
"I came today just to see how boring you could be," says Ronald Tornow, 62. "And I'm thoroughly disappointed."
Once the laughter and applause die, Gore shoots back, "You're not doing so bad yourself." Later, Tornow says he's so impressed by Gore he plans to switch parties so he can vote for him in the Democratic primary.
Their exchange is a lighthearted moment in what has unexpectedly become the most engrossing spectacle in an otherwise placid political season: the very public attempt by a vice president to put his sputtering campaign back together in the face of a surprisingly tough challenge from a former Senate colleague.
Much has been made of Gore's re-engineering effort. His image has been restyled and his campaign team shaken up after polls showed former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley gaining ground. Recent opinion surveys show that Bradley may have pulled ahead in New Hampshire, the opening primary state.
The nomination contest intensified Friday when Gore, in an interview, attacked the centerpiece of Bradley's agenda, his sweeping health care plan, as a "throwback" to old-fashioned, free-spending Democratic politics. On Wednesday,the two men will share the stage for the first time during a nationally televised, town hall-style forum.
Heading into that confrontation, the "new" Al Gore remains a work in progress. The changes are evolutionary, not drastic, like the shift of seasons that has switched the New England landscape to crimson, gold and tangerine.
Gore, 51, has undertaken the makeover effort to address four major problems troubling his candidacy: Clinton fatigue, the difficulties of campaigning from the vice presidency, perceptions that he is dull, and fears that he can't win in November 2000.
At times the results can be almost comical.
On the campaign trail in New Hampshire last week, Gore uttered President Clinton's name once in two days. He did, however, refer a couple of times to "the current administration," almost as if he were not part of it.
In an interview, Gore said he's "proud to be part of this administration. But I have to establish my own direct line of communication with the American people, and that's what I intend to do."
More effective than his sometimes awkward efforts to distance himself from Clinton are a retooled stump speech, designed to present him in a more personal fashion, and new campaign commercials that feature Gore, sheared of his official title, speaking directly to the camera.
"He is no longer running as Vice President Gore. He's running as Al Gore," says Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, who believes that Gore's problems have more to do with the job he holds than with his ties to Clinton, at least among Democratic primary voters.
"Gore's image among the public is defined by the vice presidency, which people think of inherently as a second-banana job. And they tend to think that second-banana-type people hold it," says Garin.
With no compelling issues to focus the debate, Garin adds, the Democratic race appears to be turning on personal factors "and Bradley is winning the personality contest pretty handily."
Gore, an erratic campaigner, has improved as a communicator since his unsuccessful presidential try in 1988. But he will never be Clinton's equal, especially on television.
He has come out from behind the podium, using a wireless microphone to wander in front of audiences. But his ramrod-straight bearing reinforces his reputation for stiffness, as does a tendency to choose his words with extreme caution.
According to Gore, his seven years as vice president have deepened his image problem.
"I've thought a lot about this," he said in an interview Friday. "I never got that 'stiff and wooden' rap when I was in the House and Senate," where he spent 16 years.
"Anybody that's vice president takes an oath to do the job well," he continued. "And that means when you're asked a question, you're honor-bound to reflect for a split-second to make sure that you're moving the ball down the field for the team that you're a part of. And I think that can come across as inauthenticity."
In an effort to let voters see the Al Gore they don't know, he has shed some of the trappings of the vice presidency.
And by publicly moving his campaign headquarters to Nashville, he has put some space between his candidacy and Washington, where he was born as a senator's son and has spent almost his entire life.
But the capital remains his home. The other day, he spent the better part of an hour campaigning in the newsroom of the Washington Post, something no presidential candidate has done in recent memory.
On the stump in New Hampshire, Gore wears cowboy boots, a blue polo shirt and khaki Dockers one day, and a plaid shirt and blazer the next. Strapped to his hip throughout is a Palm Pilot V organizer.
Gore is again emphasizing environmental issues, after playing them down out of a concern that he might seem anti-business. He's also telling voters he fought corruption as an investigative reporter, a piece of his past that focus groups reportedly found appealing.
He takes care to mention that he's a Vietnam War veteran and a new grandfather. His Harvard education doesn't come up, though he did tell veterans at an American Legion hall in Somersworth, N.H., that he "went to school in Boston for four years."
His Southern accent, developed during school vacations on his family's 250-acre spread in Tennessee, seems more pronounced these days. Even when he's up North, Social Security is "So-Security," a fellow is a "feller" and "cain't" is sometimes part of his vocabulary.
Earlier in the campaign, Gore would vanish quickly after an event. Now he lingers, shaking hands, posing for pictures, signing autographs and answering individuals' questions in the fashion New Hampshire demands of would-be presidents.
"I'm running for president a little bit the way I ran for Congress in 1976, and I'm having a lot more fun," he said, perched on a couch in his cabin aboard Air Force Two. "One of the good things about having a hard-fought contest is that the competition makes you dig deep."
Aides are pleased by the change in Gore's performance.
"He is more informal," says Elaine Kamarck, a policy adviser. "He is more relaxed."
Many voters, though, find the new Gore to be remarkably like the old one. Some do say he appears less aloof and more down-to-earth.
But one man warned that if he tries too hard to be something he's not, Gore could wind up like that other candidate from Tennessee, Lamar Alexander, who wore lumberjack shirts in an attempt to seem authentic and came off as phony.
"It does look like he's gotten a little more energetic," says Richard Lessard, 50, a postal worker. "He doesn't know why he fell behind, and now he's reaching out, trying to get back ahead."
Finishing ahead in the primary Feb. 1 in New Hampshire is the key to winning the nomination, Gore says, and he might be right. But first he knows that voters here will have to resolve their doubts about him.
He's begun holding meetings with undecided voters to try to win them over. At the first session in Dover, N.H., he offers an array of traditional political promises.
He mentions his plan to boost spending for special education, after-school care for children and prescription drug benefits for Medicare patients. He defends the embattled F-22 fighter jet, which involves jobs at a nearby plant, and gives assurances the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard would remain open.
Then Laurrie Malizia, a 42-year-old mother from Dover, stands to express her dismay about Clinton's personal behavior and her desire for an "honest" and "moral" man to replace him.
"I understand the disappointment that you feel, and I felt it myself," Gore begins, as the room quickly becomes still. "I think most people want to look to the future, turn that page and move on. So all I can do is tell you about myself and about my commitment to you."
Then he launches into his new stump speech, a personal story about his 29-year marriage, his parents' humble roots and his disillusionment with politics after the Vietnam War.
"Faith and family are at the center of my priorities," he says. "I don't wear it on my sleeve. But I want you to know who I am and why I'm doing this."
Interviewed after the meeting Thursday night, several audience members, including Malizia, said they were impressed by Gore's answers.
Rob Larkin, a 29-year-old salesman from Dover, said he told Gore he'd vote for him if he promised to fight air pollution.
"He said he promised. He looked me straight in the eye. I think he's an honest guy," said Larkin. "I told him, 'I hope it's a better promise than Clinton's promise.' But I'm not sure he heard me."