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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Gore Is Forced to Walk a Fine Line as Crisis Swirls Around Boss

Vice president: While voicing his support for Clinton, he's careful not to say or do anything that could haunt his own likely presidential bid in 2000.

January 27, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In the end, it may work out just fine for Al Gore, this confusing, uncertain and potentially deeply embarrassing situation in which President Clinton finds himself.

But presidents' crises can become, at a minimum, wrenching personal and political dilemmas for their vice presidents.

And so it is that Vice President Gore finds himself walking a particularly narrow path: unable to say much beyond voicing his general support for the president and, at the same time, trying to avoid saying or doing anything that would complicate his likely run for the presidency in 2000.

Keeping to a largely private and busy schedule, one that aides said has not been affected by the crisis, Gore stood at Clinton's side during the president's only appearance before cameras on Monday, looking fatigued after a bout with what was described as a nasty cold.

Speaking to a group invited to the White House to talk about child care, Clinton emphatically denied that he had "sexual relations" with Monica S. Lewinsky.

The vice president has spoken with Clinton every day since the president's personal and political crisis began last week, an aide said. But, suggesting Gore was not among those most deeply involved in plotting how to respond, the aide pointed out that "there is a separate group of advisors" dealing with such matters.

Today Gore will be seated right behind Clinton as the president delivers his State of the Union address.

Monday afternoon, Gore took steps behind closed doors to rally moderate congressional Democrats. If they desert their president--as conservative Republicans did in the final days of Watergate, forcing Richard Nixon from office and elevating Gerald R. Ford to the presidency--Clinton's last line of defense will have crumbled.

According to several accounts, the previously scheduled session with about 30 members of the New Democrat Coalition--who have worked closely with the Clinton administration on such issues as a balanced budget, modest tax relief, trade and education--focused almost entirely on the largely domestic agenda Clinton will unveil in the speech tonight.

Not one question posed by the audience was said by participants to have dealt with sex and the president.

In his formal remarks, Gore told the group that "he knows the president as well as anyone, he believes the president because he has reason to believe him, and the president has made that statement unequivocally and he totally supports him," said Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.).

Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) added: "The vice president was not only confident and uplifting, he was enthusiastic in there and very upbeat."

The need to offer such assurances aside, Gore and his staff were said by those dealing with them to be trying their best to ignore the distractions that easily eclipsed even the postgame Super Bowl discussions that would otherwise occupy the nation's capital on this last Monday in January.

Instead, their purported focus was on the final steps being taken in the preparation of the State of the Union address and on travels that are likely to take Gore to the Midwest on Wednesday and California later in the week.

The vice president's mood, said an aide, "is good--it's fine."

Gore has avoided all but limited questioning about Clinton, telling a small group of newspaper columnists with whom he met on Friday that he believes Clinton's denials. He added: "He is not only the president of the country, he is my friend."

Roy Neel, a former chief of staff to the vice president, said: "He's got his finger on what his job is: doing what he can do to help the president--and himself.

"He's the last person who should overreact and start running for the hills, and he's the last person who will," Neel said.

Still, the sensitivity of the vice president's position was reflected in the refusal of a normally voluble confidant, who has been in touch with Gore frequently since the crisis descended on the White House, to shed any light on the vice president's mood, saying of the situation: "It's too dicey."

As one Republican who served in numerous White House jobs during the Nixon and Ronald Reagan administrations put it: "He's stuck. Al Gore has no maneuverability. None whatsoever."

And when Clinton goes before both houses of Congress and a national television audience tonight, this source said, "the person who will be applauding the loudest will be Al Gore. Al Gore has to be seen as the most enthusiastic and energetic, knowing full well it can be played back in a campaign against him."

Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Janet Hook contributed to this story.

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