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Contending with The Kiss

As news it's right up (or down) there with "Dog Bites Man": Mr. Gore kissed Mrs. Gore. Horror! From the press reaction you'd have thought that maybe Rich, the mean hairy naked person who won Survivor, turned out to be the freakish love child of Richard Nixon and Madame Mao, or that aliens have taken over the government of South Carolina, or that Lassie is actually a genetically modified cat.

All that happened was that a guy kissed his wife. But this seemingly quotidian occurrence is still being talked about weeks after the Democratic National Convention. It's a big topic from the arid wastelands of Evans and Novak to the calm green valleys of Morning Edition to the rarified air of the New York Times editorial page to the populist plains of the Dave Letterman Show. The Gores' prime time snogging (was that a tongue? roll the tape back again) has been given credit for raising Gore's poll numbers among women voters, sparking up his appeal with younger voters (Check it out: Dude's sucking face on national TV!), and making the point that in kissing the woman to whom he has been married for 30 years instead of 1. a big donor, 2. big-haired trailer trash, or 3. a big-lipped intern, he is not, NOT, Bill Clinton.

Conservatives hate it. Robert Novak called it "disgusting." The National Review published a picture on its cover with the headline "Gross Out." Hell, you'd think these right-wing morality types would be big on married love. Instead they're acting like adolescents who have just realized (eeeeooowwwww!) that their parents have sex. Of course, they couch it in dark, conspiratorial terms: the kiss was scripted, the kiss had been focus-group tested at a mall in Valdosta, Ga., the kiss had been faxed in by James Carville. What they really fear is that the kiss, for all the silly-season attention it's being given, has made George W. Bush look, well, almost as wooden as Al Gore did before he took to Frenching Tipper in front of millions. Why, oh why, didn't George W. do more at the convention than just peck Laura on her well-powdered cheek?

Until now, nobody's ever accused Al Gore of being good at the touchy-feely stuff _ that was Bill Clinton. Nobody's ever accused the Tribe of Bush of being good at the touchy-feely stuff, either. They are about as sincerely affectionate with each other in public as the British Royal Family pre-Diana. They pretend hard to be salsa-eating, horn-hooking Texans, but they are really purse-lipped New England aristocrats with straight backs and cold hands.

Al Gore has edged ahead in some polls, probably because people have begun to pay a bit more attention to the election and have noticed that Gore has some detailed policies on issues that George W. is still vague about. Gore also speaks in fairly plain declarative sentences where George W. does things to the English language that are illegal in 37 states. Still, The Kiss may have helped, too, turning Robo-Veep into a flesh and blood guy for Americans who had previously found him jaw-droppingly dull.

Look for more smooching in the Gore camp and maybe copy-cat necking from the Bushes in response. It's going to be a long, slobbery campaign.

+ Diane Roberts teaches English at the University of Alabama and is a commentator for National Public Radio. +