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Gore Tills Soil for Possible 2000 Harvest

Politics: Vice president's visit to state, his third in as many months, sparks talk that he is preparing for presidential race. But his aides deny hidden motives.


WASHINGTON — When the skies opened up in January, turning parts of Northern California into a vast inland sea, the White House sprang into well-rehearsed action.

Responding as it has to fires, earthquakes and all manner of epic catastrophe over the last four years, President Clinton quickly issued a disaster declaration and assembled an airlift of top federal officials to visit the communities hit hardest by the flooding.

But if the response seemed almost formulaic in its familiarity, there was one striking difference. Slinging sandbags for the cameras in the tiny Sutter County town of Meridian and announcing dispatch of $29 million in emergency relief was not the president, in his practiced role as consoler in chief. Rather, it was Clinton's understudy, Vice President Al Gore.

The federal government will "walk with you every step of the way," Gore solemnly assured the state's soggy citizens. "This is a national problem and there will be a national response."

This week the state is expected to see the vice president again, his third visit to California in as many months, as Gore delivers a planned speech on education to a joint session of the state Legislature. The speech--an opportunity the Legislature seldom provides to federal officials--will provide him a high-profile forum for further promises of federal attention to issues of concern to California.

Diligently and with painstaking care, as if stacking sandbags out on the Sacramento River, Gore has quietly started building the infrastructure in California for an expected run for president in 2000.

Most people probably find it absurd to talk about campaign 2000, particularly with so many revelations surfacing about the presidential campaign just ended. But one audience cares very much, political insiders, and those are the very people Gore and his potential rivals need to woo now, while they're still uncommitted, if they hope to be able to count on their support later.

For years, the vice president has courted the state's major donors and party activists, fulfilling one of the traditional political functions of his office. More recently, Gore has sought to strengthen his personal ties with groups he will need to win his party's nomination and keep California in the Democratic column, should he decide to run.

Now, the stakes for him have risen. His speech to the Legislature comes at an especially important time for his undeclared and officially unacknowledged candidacy, after his ensnarement in the growing White House fund-raising controversy.

"Al Gore's about to get a pretty good measure of who his real friends are," said Darry Sragow, a supporter who directed California efforts during Gore's failed 1988 presidential campaign.

Gore's wooing of California activists has covered many of the party's key constituencies. After traveling last month to Los Angeles to speak to labor leaders at the AFL-CIO's annual convention, for example, he held a private dinner with more than a dozen Silicon Valley executives, addressed a gathering of Hollywood political activists, attended a Berkeley retreat of Assembly Democrats and met with a small group of San Francisco Bay Area gay and lesbian leaders.

"He wanted a reading list of books that would help familiarize himself to the community," said Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), one of the lesbian activists who met with the vice president. Although issues were discussed, she described the session, which Gore requested, as "100% presidential politics."

Gore's aides, meanwhile, are keeping a close watch on the vice president's political interests in California, which anchored both Clinton's election and reelection victories.

"They're looking for places they should go, issues they should be involved in, things they should be talking about," said Bob Mulholland, an advisor to the California Democratic Party who estimates that he hears from Gore's office two to three times a week. "They're looking for California stories that connect to what they're doing back there."

Aides to the vice president are quick to deny even the slightest political calculation. Gore himself insists he has not even made up his mind whether to run in 2000.

A spokeswoman said the vice president visited California during the floods only because Clinton had a scheduling conflict. Moreover, she noted that Gore also toured flooded parts of Washington state and Idaho, the latter among the staunchest Republican redoubts in the country.

"The president often will ask the vice president to fill in on meetings here at the White House because his schedule backs up and he often asks the vice president to do specific speaking engagements for him as well," said press secretary Ginny Terzano.

Observers agree that Gore has been among the most visible and engaged vice presidents in history--for better or worse, as his current political difficulties attest.

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