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President Gore? A Generation of Rivals Waits in the Wings

Elections: Party's leading lights poised for 2000. Experts say the vice president is in a good position, but he'll have plenty of company.


CHICAGO — Early in the first night of the Democratic National Convention, Vice President Al Gore strode into the hall and set off a roar of applause and chants of, "Four more and then Gore!"

Although Gore denies even thinking about his own presidential run in 2000, it's clearly on the minds of many of the delegates here. And despite Gore's protestations that his first, second and third priorities this fall are the reelection of President Clinton, priorities four through 10 appear to be putting himself in position to run for president himself four years from now.

Although the main business of the convention is Clinton's renomination, until the president arrives on Wednesday the stage belongs to Gore.

And he's making the most of it. Gore will deliver two major addresses to the convention before Clinton rises to speak Thursday night. He is touching base with every major Democratic constituency, from labor to Latinos, African Americans to Jews.

Even before the Democrats' 1996 nominee is anointed, the race for 2000 is on, and Clinton's understudy stands as the clear front-runner.

Potential rivals like Democratic Party Chairman Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and convention co-chairman Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri are relegated to the shadows, working the state delegations and fighting for network air time.

But while Gore looks formidable now, his ascension in 2000 is far from sure.

Fate Linked to Clinton

First, the Clinton-Gore ticket must win in November. Then, his fate hinges in large measure on the record of the second Clinton term and imponderables, such as the state of the economy four years hence.

"You don't control your own destiny," says Democratic consultant Brian Lunde. "Although you have fund-raising and organizational advantages, you're not in control of larger issues. You're at the mercy of the president. You inherit most of the bad and none of the good. And you inherit all of the guy's enemies."

A senior Gore aide said the best thing the vice president can do to improve his chances four years from now is to ensure the president's victory this year.

The convention is designed solely for that purpose, and if the spotlight is shining brightly on Gore for the next two days, that's part of the reelection plan.

"You have to look at the whole package together--the train trip, the convention, the bus trip [after the convention]," said Gore Chief of Staff Ron Klain.

"The president is out in the country putting focus on the agenda for the next term. The vice president is here making sure the base and the operatives are fired up and feel they're getting the attention they deserve and are ready for the fall."

Even if Gore and his top aides aren't talking about 2000, they're putting in place the early pieces for a run. Gore loyalists are sprinkled through the top ranks of the administration and the Democratic Party--including Klain, White House counsel Jack Quinn and Clinton-Gore reelection committee Director Peter S. Knight.

Knight, a 12-year veteran of Gore's congressional staff and the manager of his short-lived 1988 presidential campaign, disavows any early planning for 2000 from his reelection-committee post.

But others close to Gore and Knight said the longtime aide was put there purposely to build a foundation for the next race.

In Chicago, Gore is assiduously courting important Democratic constituencies; his schedule for the week looks like a compressed fall campaign itinerary.

On Sunday alone, he spoke to a forum sponsored by the AFL-CIO, visited a joint meeting of the National Education Assn. and the American Federation of Teachers, spoke at a black church, addressed the National Jewish Democratic Coalition and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and met with state directors of the Clinton-Gore reelection committee.

He showed both his strengths and weaknesses as a campaigner during Sunday's events.

In his speech to more than 900 union members who are delegates to the convention, the vice president was relaxed and even funny. His animated speech had the crowd laughing and cheering from beginning to end. Many were reminded of the easy familiarity with trade unionists that former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey enjoyed.

But when he showed up at a party sponsored by Jewish groups, Gore reverted to his wooden speaking style, delivering a boilerplate speech about foreign policy and the administration's commitment to Israel.

The speech was so lifeless that about a third of the audience drifted out of the room while he was still speaking.

On Monday, Gore continued his hectic schedule, spending breakfast with the New York and Wisconsin delegations, talking with political strategists from the South, attending a reception for delegates from Iowa, speaking to Latino delegates and meeting with mayors and labor leaders.

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