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National Perspective | POLITICS

Gore Laying Foundation for Higher Office

Even as he promotes Clinton's reelection, aides are mobilizing for a White House bid in 2000.

July 16, 1996|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — When Al Gore held a town meeting with employees of a high-tech company here recently, he lavishly credited President Clinton's economic program for pulling California and the nation out of a recession.

But even as the vice president was still warming up the 200 workers with praise for his boss and a string of self-deprecating jokes, the faint whiff of a more personal agenda surfaced.

The next time y'all look at the great seal of the vice president of the United States, shut your left eye, Gore said, demonstrating. Then cock your head just so and, presto, the word vice is gone. The seal now reads: president of the United States.

Knowing chuckles rippled across the room and, as the applause swelled, Gore's best imitation of a comedian's deadpan morphed into a politician's beam.

Even as he assiduously promotes the reelection of the Clinton-Gore ticket, the nation's 45th vice president has all but begun his own bid for the White House four years from now, despite obligatory protestations to the contrary.

Already, top Gore loyalists are deployed throughout the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party apparatus, from the White House counsel and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to manager of the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. Along with doing their part to win the current ticket four more years in office, they are ready to preempt rivals for the nomination in 2000.

Gore, meanwhile, continues to maintain a surprisingly high profile for a vice president; he now is heading a U.S. delegation visiting Russia in the wake of its historic presidential election earlier this month.

And increasingly, Clinton is pushing issues straight out of Gore's agenda, from environmental protection to an array of "family values" issues that Gore began advocating years ago while still a senator from Tennessee.

But for now, Gore says his "top three priorities" are one and the same: Clinton's reelection. For emphasis, the vice president playfully chanted that mantra three times as his limousine glided through a posh bay-side San Diego neighborhood one recent evening after a fund-raiser that raked in $225,000 for the Democratic Party.

"I'm not doing or saying anything that is directed at a race for president in the year 2000," Gore added, "because it's simply premature."

Or is it?

As Gore's own words and occasional quips reveal, a White House bid of his own seems never far from his consciousness--or that of his well-positioned allies. Indeed a "Gore for President" campaign appears inevitable, whichever way this fall's election goes.

A Clinton victory would give Gore four more years to burnish the image that administration officials have tried to create: Gore as America's most influential vice president. A defeat would still leave him the odds-on favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000--a spot he sought in 1988.

In this year's campaign, Gore has embraced with relish the role of the attack dog, ready at a moment's notice to mix it up with any and all critics, be it GOP candidate Bob Dole or House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Gore says age should not be an issue in the campaign, but on the stump he openly suggests that Dole is out of touch, perhaps a subliminal reminder to voters that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee soon turns 73. Gore was less coy three years ago at Dole's 70th birthday party at the Capitol. As a beaming Dole held up a "Dole 96" pin, Gore quipped: "Is this a reference to your age or your ambitions?"

Dole is a convenient foil for the vice president in other ways as well. Next to the former Kansas senator, a notoriously lackluster campaigner, Gore looks positively like the Energizer bunny.

Perhaps best of all in this campaign, Gore no longer has to be defensive when it comes to the environment--his signature issue--as he was in 1992, when his best-selling book, "Earth in the Balance," made him vulnerable to Republican charges of being an "extremist."

*

Today, after a congressional session that saw blunt, though ultimately unsuccessful, GOP attacks on various environmental regulations, it is the Republicans who are fending off the extremist label, now hurled by Gore.

"They made a huge mistake. . . . But they are sensitive now," the vice president said, chuckling.

Another Gore campaign asset is his personal conduct and family life, which present a sharp contrast to the endless accusations of scandal and improprieties swirling around the Clintons.

In fact, that can be a sensitive topic at the White House. More than once, sources said, Clinton advisors have delicately suggested to speakers charged with introducing Gore at certain events that they tone down their remarks lauding his personal integrity, lest the comparison to Clinton becomes too painfully obvious.

"He's a nightmare for anyone trying to produce personal attack ads," said telecommunications lobbyist Roy Neel, a top Gore aide for 17 years before he served as Clinton's deputy chief of staff.

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