CHICAGO - In a mad scramble for electoral votes, Vice President Al Gore hopscotched across the country yesterday, from eastern Pennsylvania to Chicago to Las Cruces, N.M., and then to Kansas City, pursuing a state-by-state victory strategy that he hopes will defy national polls that narrowly favor George W. Bush.
Gore trumpeted a populist theme - that he could best maintain the nation's prosperity, while pursuing environmental, energy and health care policies that would put the people's interests over the special interests.
"In this fork-of-the-road election, prosperity itself is on the ballot," Gore shouted to a raucous audience jammed into Chicago's Daley Plaza and revved up by Stevie Wonder. "Vote for prosperity. Vote for your families. Vote for your communities."
On the airwaves and in pitches to reporters, Gore's aides pressed a more confrontational contention: that Bush lacks the experience and commitment to be president.
A new Gore television advertisement reached 15 swing states yesterday, assailing Bush's record on the environment, health care and taxes as Texas governor, as well as his failure to push for a higher minimum wage in that state. The ad concludes ominously, "Is he ready to lead America?"
With Election Day on Tuesday, Gore's battle with his Republican opponent has come down to a chess match over the electoral map. And in that match, every electoral vote counts, including the paltry five that Gore was pursuing last night with Latino leaders gathered in the southeastern corner of New Mexico. In all, Gore touched down yesterday in four states representing 61 electoral votes. A total of 270 are needed for victory.
While Bush has mostly targeted traditionally Democratic states, Gore is focusing on swing states - and also on his own base. The vice president will find himself today in normally Democratic Iowa and this evening will rally supporters in his home state of Tennessee, from Knoxville in the east to Memphis in the west. Gore continues to trail Bush in Tennessee opinion polls, though he has narrowed the gap.
A loss in Tennessee would not just cost Gore 11 electoral votes. It would be a wounding psychological blow. From his quests for a House seat to his run for the Senate to his bid for the vice presidency, Gore has never lost an election in Tennessee. The vice president and his family will spend election night in Nashville, and if he loses Tennessee, it would mark the first time since George McGovern's crushing loss in 1972 that a presidential candidate had failed to win his home state.
"My dream scenario is that Gore loses on election night and Tennessee pushes Bush over the top," said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant.
While vowing that the vice president would win his home state, Chris Lehane, Gore's spokesman, suggested ample reasons why he might not: a Republican governor, two Republican senators, a majority Republican House delegation and an increasingly conservative tilt in the state.
"People in Tennessee are not just going to vote for the vice president because he's from their state," Lehane said. "We have to win on the issues."
Still, Gore aides say they can construct numerous scenarios that would push their candidate over the 270 electoral vote threshold needed for victory - with or without Tennessee.
Victories in California, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan would give the vice president 175 electoral votes and six of the seven largest states in the country. Add to those votes the 59 electoral votes from eight safe Democratic states and Gore has just about reached the White House.
From there, he would need 36 more electoral votes from the 81 available in the wild-card states of Delaware, Iowa, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Maine.
Appearing at Lackawanna Junior College in Scranton, Pa., yesterday, Gore painted the election as a choice between the Clinton-Gore administration policies that he said had boosted the nation economically and socially over the past eight years, and the policies of his predecessors that he said had resulted in recession and record budget deficits.
He appealed repeatedly: "I need your help. Are you with me?"
In Chicago, with a backdrop of towering skyscrapers and a crowd of broad-shouldered union workers filling the plaza, the vice president put aside his frequent reluctance to dwell on the successes of the past eight years. He even mentioned Bill Clinton by name, a rarity in his campaign, as he recited the litany of economic achievements in the 1990s, from eliminating the budget deficit and racking up the largest budget surpluses in history to shrinking black and Latino unemployment rates to their lowest levels on record.
"We are not going back," the vice president growled as the roar of the crowd swallowed his words. "We are going forward and onward."
Illinois and its 22 electoral votes still appear to be in Gore's grasp, but recent polls have shown the race tightening in the state. As Gore campaigned downtown, Bush was visiting the largely Republican Chicago suburbs, looking for an upset.
In keeping with the election's topsy-turvy electoral map, Gore sought last night to upend Bush's lead in New Mexico, a state that has been considered safely in the Bush camp. The state did, however, vote for Clinton in 1996, and a growing Hispanic population that tends to vote Democratic has kept the race tight this time.
While the vice president rallied the Democratic faithful, his campaign was advertising to undecided voters with its most direct shot at Bush's qualifications.
Lehane ridiculed the Texas governor for taking Sunday off for a rest at the Bush family ranch in East Texas. The contrast between Gore's frenetic campaigning and Bush's more leisurely pace, Lehane contended, reflected the kind of president each would make. "The hardest day on the campaign trail is the easiest day as president," the Gore spokesman said.
The Bush campaign responded by saying that Gore is running the most negative presidential campaign in history, even as Bush aides took potshots of their own.
"When it comes to experience, America can't afford Al Gore's experience of raising taxes, increasing the size of government, opposing bipartisan Medicare and Social Security reform, and not making education a priority," said Dan Bartlett, a Bush spokesman.