PITTSBURGH - Brimming with confidence and buoyed by his opponent's missteps, Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore struck an optimistic, even lofty note yesterday, telling a huge Labor Day crowd to unite around his expansive agenda of new government programs and targeted tax cuts.
Labor Day, the unofficial start of the presidential campaign, traditionally has marked a turning point in elections, when the opinions of the electorate crystallize and the pool of undecided voters dwindles to a small sliver of the total.
Gore sought out friendly union voters in a Democratic city to bring in the crowds that would attest to his upswing in the polls.
Speaking at Pittsburgh's Point Park, at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers, Gore urged a crowd estimated at 10,000 to "open your hearts and allow yourselves to genuinely believe without reservation that we can do the right thing in this country. ...
"Believe in America. Believe in yourselves. Let's win this election."
It was the high point of a grueling five-city, 26-hour "work-athon" designed to showcase Gore and his running mate as the ticket willing to put in the effort to not only win the election, but govern the country.
The contrast to the more leisurely campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush was implicit but unmistakable, as Gore spoke of a sleepless night, traveling from a construction site in Philadelphia to a hospital in Flint, Mich., to a pre-dawn breakfast with Tampa firefighters, to the Pittsburgh Labor Day parade and rally, and on to a picnic dinner in Louisville, Ky.
Gore even thanked the working press, in glowing terms not usually used by politicians. The thanks might have been more political than heartfelt, a veiled reference to a vulgar comment Bush inadvertently uttered into an open microphone yesterday about a New York Times reporter.
The vice president's refrain was simple, as it has been since his successful convention last month: "I will fight for you."
It was left to other Democrats to go after Bush by name.
In particular, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson taunted Bush about his proposal to hold two of the three presidential debates on talk shows rather than in the official presidential debate commission's format that would be aired by all the major networks.
Jackson said Bush - succumbing to a "rising fear factor" - hoped to "privatize the debates."
"Come out of the bushes and let's debate," Jackson said, reprising the "stay out [of] the Bushes" line he used at the Democratic National Convention.
Gore will maintain his pace for much of the week, traveling from Louisville, Ky., to Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio, today. He plans to deliver what aides are billing as a major address on the nation's economic future tomorrow in Cleveland, before going to Detroit.
On Thursday, he will head to Scranton, Pa., and New Orleans before completing the campaign swing in Atlanta on Friday.
The tour will take him not only to the Rust Belt battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, but also to Southern states that the vice president hopes he can put into play, to force Bush to campaign in a region the governor hoped to have locked up by now.
Top Gore advisers were ebullient yesterday, even allowing themselves to comment on a Pennsylvania poll released over the weekend that showed Gore clearly taking the lead in a state that could determine the victor in November.
"I like the numbers," said Frank Hunger, Gore's brother-in-law, though he was quick to discount polls that showed the vice president pulling away.
Gore plans to hammer on economic themes this week, taking a share of the credit for the nation's surging economy even as he seeks to explain how he can move the country even further ahead.
Campaign officials said Gore will leave it to aides to respond to the prescription drug plan that Bush plans to unveil today as he sticks to his message, "You ain't seen nothing yet."
But Gore was willing to personally jump into the fray over the debate schedule, telling the "Today" show, "It's been an American tradition to get all the networks together and give all of the American people the right to see three, 90-minute, prime-time debates."
The Gore campaign put out statistics saying that an average of 90 million people tuned in to the presidential debates of 1992, and 41 million watched in 1996.
In contrast, the highest rated episode of "Larry King Live," the site where Bush proposes to debate one night, is 11.3 million viewers. About 11.2 million watched when Gore debated Ross Perot on "Larry King Live" in 1993 over the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The Bush campaign retorted that in 1996, President Clinton agreed to only two of the three debates proposed by the official debate commission.
President George Bush also snubbed the commission on the first proposed debate of the 1992 campaign.
Gore's reception in the heavily union city of Pittsburgh was enthusiastic.
The vice president has had problems with some union leaders, breaking with organized labor to support free trade agreements and alienating some workers with his environmentalism. But the Democratic base has come back to the party as the election nears.
"We just put our trust in Clinton, and we'll put our trust with Gore and hope the Democrats will follow through and keep us on the right path," said Sylvester Lachut, 66, a retired bus driver with the Amalgamated Transit Union.
In the more divided city of Tampa, residents were decidedly more ambivalent. At an unscheduled stop at La Teresita's diner, Iris Williams glared at her newspaper as Gore passed by, looking for hands to shake.
"He disrupted my schedule," she said. "I'm a senior citizen, and I don't like to have my schedule disrupted."
Another man snapped, "When Clinton leaves, why don't you go with him?"
A few stools over, Larry Pflager, 59, was more supportive, saying he was a lifelong Republican who had been won over to the Democratic side over the past eight years.