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Can Al Gore stop his exaggerations?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Standing before a large but hardly overwhelming assemblage of supporters in the town square of Warren, Ohio, the day after his first debate with Gov. George W. Bush, Vice President Al Gore proclaimed it to be "probably the biggest crowd we have had in this campaign year." The audience proudly cheered the "revelation."

Afterward, in a room where reporters traveling with him were busily writing and transmitting their stories, some of them remembered at least one larger crowd for Mr. Gore in Pittsburgh. For early October, the Warren turnout was impressive, but hardly the record-setter he had claimed.

As campaign exaggerations go, this one was small potatoes. But with the vice president's penchant for stretching the truth being seized by the Bush campaign as an important reason to vote against him, it raised the question: Why did he say it? He had to know otherwise.

Exuberance often leads a campaigner to go overboard, and Mr. Gore clearly was feeling very good the morning after that initial debate in Boston. But you might have thought, what with Mr. Bush's laser-like focus on the credibility of the vice president's comments, he would have been particularly careful not to feed more ammunition to the opposition.

An earlier presidential nominee who often flirted with a credibility problem on the stump was the late Richard Nixon, making claims such as saying he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam that he never backed up. But Nixon learned to harness even the most innocuous contentions with stated reservations that, in his mind anyway, kept him within truthful bounds.

On the night before the 1968 Oregon primary election at a huge rally in a college gymnasium in Portland, Nixon grandly proclaimed it to be "the final rally of the primary campaign." Then, obviously remembering that a breakfast reception was scheduled for the following morning, he quickly added: "As far as nighttime rallies are concerned."

The laughable distinction revealed Nixon's awareness of how closely his traveling companions in the press corps had learned to monitor his remarks.

Mr. Gore is different. For all the grief he has taken on his truth-stretching, he seems not to have that internal mechanism that often saved Nixon from himself, with his almost paranoid wariness toward a press he was convinced was always out to get him.

Ever since his rival for the Democratic nomination, former Sen. Bill Bradley, asked in one of their primary debates, "Why should we believe that you will tell the truth as president if you don't tell the truth as a candidate?" the Bush campaign has been trumpeting the quote. It even constructed a billboard bearing the Bradley query across from Gore headquarters in Nashville.

With the economy humming along at record levels, the Bush argument that the Clinton-Gore administration has "squandered" the past eight years is an extremely hard sell. Hence the Bush campaign has homed in more and more on the credibility of Gore's statements, from his lame excuses on 1996 campaign fund-raising excesses to his scolding of Hollywood for aiming violent movies at kids while continuing to tap Tinseltown for more contributions.

Mr. Bush tried humor to play on Mr. Gore's credibility in the Boston debate by accusing him of "fuzzy math" in discussing tax cuts and observing that, rather than having "invented the Internet," Mr. Gore sounded as if he had "invented the calculator."

Mr. Gore fed the opposition more material in that Boston debate by claiming to have accompanied a federal emergency management official, James Lee Watt, on an inspection trip of Texas fires in 1996 when he actually had not. He had toured other disasters with Mr. Watt and had flown over some later Texas fires, but without Mr. Watt. It was an understandable mix-up that Mr. Gore acknowledged the next morning, but the Bush campaign jumped on it nonetheless.

It will be interesting to see whether Mr. Gore, in the face of the Bush focus on his credibility, can put aside his exaggerations the rest of the way or help his opposition make a mountain of what he himself apparently regards as only a mole hill.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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