HARDBALL: Gore gave voters a permission slip

WASHINGTON -- Al Gore is neither a genius nor an orator, nor is he especially lucky. His leapfrogging of George Bush in the opinion polls requires, therefore, an explanation.

Here's mine: Voters are not as undecided as the polls have suggested. They entered this electoral season, as they have so many times before, wanting to vote for the current administration's astoundingly successful economic policies. Al Gore gave them permission to do just that. He used the Democratic Convention to demonstrate that people could vote to keep the good economy without having to license the personal behavior associated with Bill Clinton.

The dramatic Al-loves-Tipper kiss was the deal-maker. That smacker in Los Angeles told the world that here is a couple united more by physical attraction than political ambition, a couple unlikely to replicate the strange ambiguities of the Bill-and-Hillary show.

In that one blinding act of self-revelation, Al Gore freed voters to forget the Clinton-era voyeurism and acknowledge their more primitive self-interest in the 2000 election. My old boss Tip O'Neill noted that "all politics is local." Nothing is more local than your pocketbook.

As hard evidence of this, consider the Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) produced every other month by The Conference Board. With one exception -- the victory of Richard Nixon at the height of the Vietnam War -- the CCI is a perfect predictor of presidential elections.

When the CCI is up, the party holding the White House maintains its hold; when it's down, the party in power loses it.

In 1972, with the CCI at 112, Richard Nixon was re-elected. In 1984, with the CCI at 100, Ronald Reagan was re-elected. In 1988, with the index at 111, George Bush was elected to what many saw as a Reagan third term. In 1996, with the index at 112, Bill Clinton was re-elected.

A low CCI is an equally solid forecaster. In 1976, with the CCI at 87, Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter. In 1980, with the CCI at 80, Carter lost to Reagan. In 1992, with the index at 57, Bush was beaten by Clinton.

Right now, the CCI stands at 142. People are aglow with confidence. They like the way things are and want to keep them this way.

Gore has grabbed the lead in the opinion polls because he has given voters permission to act on their confidence. In L.A., he said voters could give him the Oval Office without having Bill Clinton loitering in that little back hall he made so infamous.

Many started to believe him. Prior to Los Angeles, 47 percent saw Gore as "too close to Bill Clinton to provide a fresh start the country needs." Afterwards, the number was down to 39 percent.

The best way to end a political marriage, it appears, is to display a real one.

(Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington Bureau, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC and MSNBC cable channels. The 1999 edition of "Hardball" was published by Touchstone Books.)


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