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Who Is Elvis Prez-ley?

Does Gore not know how to pronounce the name of this Tennessee eminence?

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A line of attack frequently pursued by Vice President Al Gore's Republican adversaries in this year's presidential race has been that he is only a nominal Tennessean, that he is actually a son of Washington, D.C., and that his contacts with home-staters are only superficial and occasional.

Whether fair or not, the approach has evidently succeeded in sowing doubt in the minds of some Tennessee voters and may be partly responsible for Gore's recent second-place showing, behind Republican rival George W. Bush, in a variety of pollsters' samplings of Tennesseans.

The vice president did himself little good in this regard when he appeared Tuesday night on NBC's Tonight Show with host Jay Leno.

At one point, discussing the annual habit that he and wife Tipper engage in of dressing up for Halloween in elaborate custumes, he noted that members of the press corps surprised him Tuesday at one of his rally stops by showing up in Halloween getups of their own.

One of them was disguised, Gore noted, "as Elvis Prez-ley"-- giving the name the pronunciation favored by members of the national media. But not by Tennesseans.

And certainly not by residents of Memphis, site of an eleventh-hour stop this weekend by candidate Gore, who is counting on a Shelby County turnout to give him a chance for victory in Tennessee over Bush.

The late entertainment icon Elvis Presley pronounced his name "Press-ley," never any other way, and the difference in pronunciations has historically been regarded as one of those divides that distinguish the local sensibility from the national one.

The gaffe is only symbolic, but it prompts two thoughts, neither of which is flattering to Gore. Does he not know the right way to say the name of this late home-state eminence? Or does he know the right way and prefer to accommodate himself to the prevailing error elsewhere?

For those who would consider the incident insignificant, this question might be considered: what would it say of Gore's home-state savvy if he pronounced the first name of a latter-day artist "Shan-ia," which emphasis on the first syllable? Or "Shan-ee-ah" or some other wrong guess? This is, after all, a time in which Gore, Bush, and all other major candidates for office make a practice of taking an active part in popular culture and flaunting their knowledge of it.

As the vice president digs in for his last stand in Tennessee and elsewhere, some other moves of his (or of his campaign staff's) have threatened to backfire. Early Wednesday morning, a Memphis radio reporter was awakened from slumber by a call from the Gore-Lieberman campaign urging him to conduct an interview with former state Attorney General (and current Gore CEO) Charles Burson, who was then placed on the line. (This came a day after someone from the Gore-Lieberman campaign had called the station and carried out a lengthy interrogation concerning its demographics Ñ the idea seeming to station personnel to be, 'Are you worthy of being the medium for our message?')

Somewhat grumpily, the reporter obliged by havng a conversation with Burson, a highly personable man but one whom he did not know personally. The reporter made no effort to record it for later broadcast purposes.

To the reporter, the episode-- which no doubt had its counterpart in Bush's campaign here and there-- smacked of the artificial and the peremptory.

For all that, it is a fact that Gore has his share of long-term home-state relationships, real ones, and he will be calling on all these during his weekend sweep of Knoxville and Memphis (where a Court Square rally Friday night will be followed by Gore's appearance at a Democratic prayer breakfast Saturday), to be followed by a return to his headquarters site of Nashville to get the last word from the voters.

"I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" is Gore's song, and any wrong notes here at the end of things could easily create unwanted dissonance instead of the playback he's looking for. (You can write Jackson Baker at baker@memphisflyer.com)

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