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Clintons Meet Up With Gores for Symbolic Passing of Torch

Politics: In a ceremony highlighting the past as much as the future, the president and vice president start bidding farewell to each other.


MONROE, Mich. — Bill Clinton and Al Gore began their long, emotional goodbye Tuesday, opening a final chapter of a complex and extraordinary White House partnership marked by proud achievements but strained by the president's sex scandal.

As the president symbolically passed the torch to his vice president here before an estimated 10,000 supporters, Campaign 2000 focused, perhaps for the last time, on the past as much as the future.

In unusually brief remarks, Clinton cited a litany of his administration's accomplishments and lavishly praised the vice president, as he did in his speech on the opening night of the Democratic nominating convention in Los Angeles Monday.

"Every good thing in the last eight years, Al Gore was at the heart of it. He has been a leader for the new economy, a leader for welfare reform, a leader for education, a leader for lowering the crime rate," the president said.

"The things that have happened in the last eight years, the good things, are nothing compared to the good things that can happen in the next eight years--nothing," Clinton added.

He called Gore "my partner and friend . . . [who] understands where we are, where we're going and how it will affect ordinary citizens more than any other public figure in this country over the last 20 years."

For his part, Gore lauded his boss for having "worked hard to get this economy right" and then vowed:

"I'm not going to let the other side wreck it and take it away from us. We're going to keep the prosperity going!"

Gore also thanked Clinton "for giving me a chance to serve my country . . . by working to help strengthen your hand."

Under a broiling sun on a steamy Midwestern afternoon in this Detroit suburb, neither Clinton nor Gore spoke for long. Both men, joined by their wives, wore dark suits.

As Gore took the podium, he doffed his jacket and casually flung it to the floor.

When the vice president was done speaking, the Clintons and the Gores exchanged numerous hugs, kisses and back-slaps amid a shower of confetti.

Then, almost imperceptibly at first, the president and first lady began to recede from center stage. Suddenly, they were joined by daughter Chelsea, whose appearance elicited a roar from the crowd in front.

Holding hands, the Clintons slowly made their exit from the stage, heading into the nearby Monroe County Courthouse. For once, the president passed up the chance to shake hands with admirers gathered along the security rope lines. He simply waved--and smiled a wan, rueful smile.

Alone in the spotlight, the Gores turned their backs on the crowd and watched the Clintons walk off stage and enter the courthouse. As with many in the crowd, the Gores waved to the Clintons.

After the Clintons disappeared, the Gores climbed down from the stage and began working the rope lines.

The Gore campaign chose Monroe as site of the public handoff because it is emblematic of the economic resurgence many working-class communities enjoyed in the past eight years.

In that time, Monroe County's unemployment rate dropped from 8.8% to 2.2%, while the median household income rose from $39,671 to $49,068--above the national average.

Amid the celebratory ambience here, left unsaid was a wistful sense--shared privately by many top aides to both Clinton and Gore--of what might have been, had Clinton's impeachment controversy not sapped the administration's energy for 14 months.

The array of unfinished business now forms the foundation of Gore's campaign agenda.

"America's done well, but I tell you, you ain't seen nothing yet! We're going forward to even better times," Gore said.

He then recited his priorities: Social Security and Medicare reform, medical insurance for all children by 2004, a patients' bill of rights, prescription drug coverage for seniors, a targeted middle-class tax cut and education reform.

"I know that we've got a hard-fought race ahead of us," the vice president conceded. But he also seemed to draw energy and hope from the boisterous crowd.

"When I look out at this wonderful crowd and feel the enthusiasm from all of you, and look into the far reaches of these blocks and as many people as can possibly fit into this area, I know we're going to win."

In the course of the campaign, said White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, Clinton intends to be "out there," speaking for Gore and meeting with key Democratic constituencies, while also raising money.

"He will do whatever the Gore-Lieberman team thinks would be helpful," Podesta said. "But it's their call. It's their strategic decision, and ultimately we'll look for them to call the plays."

Shortly after leaving the Loranger Square rally here, Clinton stopped his motorcade at a McDonald's, one of his favorite fast-food outlets during his days as Arkansas governor.

There the president ordered a chicken sandwich.

"If I'm going to be a citizen again, I'm going to have to start getting used to it," Clinton joked.

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