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Clinton takes unprecedented role in Gore's campaign
By SARA FRITZ
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2000
WASHINGTON -- Perhaps it was foolish to expect that Bill Clinton would -- like most two-term American presidents -- simply fade from the political scene in his final year in the White House. After all, he has often defied expectations.
So it is not surprising that in the last gasp of his career in public life, Clinton is more deeply engaged than any modern lame-duck president in combating enemies and in promoting the election of his hand-picked successor, Vice President Al Gore.
Not since President Theodore Roosevelt energetically stumped for the candidacy of William Howard Taft in 1908 has there been a retiring chief executive who went to such lengths to influence the election of his replacement. And even Roosevelt's efforts may have been something less than the overtly partisan role that Clinton has taken in the 2000 presidential race.
"Clinton is engaged in Gore's campaign in a way that is really unprecedented," says Stephen Hess, presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "He's not just out there campaigning for Gore, but he is also developing new programs to get Gore elected."
Hess notes that President Lyndon B. Johnson, although he heartily supported the candidacy of his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey, did little to help Humphrey in 1968 -- in part, to allow Humphrey to distance himself from the Vietnam War. Likewise, neither President Dwight D. Eisenhower nor President Ronald Reagan were deeply involved in trying to elect their vice presidents to the White House.
Unlike Clinton, of course, Johnson, Eisenhower and Reagan were considerably older and less energetic in the final years of their presidencies. And they did not thrive on campaigning, as Clinton does. "Bill Clinton genuinely enjoys campaigning," notes White House communications director Ann Lewis.
Clinton also did not even flinch last week when Gore appeared to distance himself from administration policy toward 6-year-old Cuban exile Elian Gonzalez. "LBJ would have taken Hubert Humphrey to the woodshed if he had done something like that, and it would have been unbelieveable," says Hess.
The irony of Clinton's heightened role in the campaign is that just a year ago, most pundits were predicting Gore would have to completely divorce himself from the president if he wanted to get elected. The thinking then was that any identification with an impeached and disgraced president would be a liability for Gore.
"The Gore people started out distancing him from Clinton," notes Hess. "You'll recall that just a year ago, Al Gore was busy telling us how "disappointed' he was with the personal behavior of the president."
Now, to the contrary, polls show that Clinton's high approval ratings are proving to be an asset for the Gore campaign and the president's efforts to shape the political debate are helping the vice president make a case for his candidacy.
"Bill Clinton remains a remarkably popular president and, on balance, he is helping Gore," says pollster John Zogby. "The truth is that nobody campaigns better than he does. There were fears that he might overshadow Gore, but the "new Al Gore' does not have to worry about that."
It was Clinton's fear of overshadowing Gore, according to Lewis, that caused the president to restrain himself until the vice president had established himself "as his own person" during the primary campaign season. Now that Gore appears to have etched his individual identity into the minds of the voters, she said, Clinton feels free to have his say.
Still, many Republicans and Democrats were surprised recently when Clinton so boldly inserted himself into the 2000 election debate by directly criticizing Gore's Republican opponent for president, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Speaking at a fundraising event March 30 in New York, he ridiculed Bush's opposition to abortion and hate-crimes legislation and argued that Bush's tax-cut proposal would endanger vital government functions.
Although it was Clinton's most direct swipe at Bush to date, the Texas governor indicated he was getting used to the president's attacks.
"This is about the fifth or sixth time that the president of the United States during the course of this campaign has taken time out of his busy schedule to serve as campaign manager for Al Gore," Bush said. "I am honored that he would take my campaign so seriously that he would spend time talking about me."
In response, Gore campaign officials were quick to note that Bush is getting some powerful support from Republican leaders in Congress, who appear to be trimming their legislative agenda to conform to Bush's campaign proposals.
Taking random potshots at Bush is not the central purpose of Clinton's outspoken support for Gore, however. Zogby notes that the president's campaigning is targeted at pro-Clinton groups whose support Gore needs -- women, independents and Democratic Party regulars.
Clinton's renewed emphasis on gun control, for example, is seen as a direct appeal to female voters, a majority of whom currently favor Bush. To help Gore appeal to independents, the president has strongly endorsed the vice president's proposal for creating an endowment to help finance elections.
But the voters that Clinton can best help to win over to Gore's side are the Democratic Party regulars -- the men and women who can help fund the campaign with their donations.
"President Clinton has literally thousands of Democrats whose enthusiasm for the party is because of him," Lewis observes. "He is using his ability to energize these supporters for Gore."
The proof of Lewis' statement is reflected in the Democratic National Committee's financial balance sheet. Records show that Clinton's frequent fundraising appearances helped the party raise more than $20-million in the first three months of the year.
Another reason for Clinton's hard work on behalf of the Gore campaign is he sees electing the vice president as a way of cementing his own political legacy.
Hess notes that because the Monica Lewinsky scandal preoccupied Clinton during his sixth year in office, he will be leaving the White House with many things he wanted to do left undone. He is hoping Gore will accomplish those goals in the years to come.
"Gore is his legacy," Hess says.
Lewis agrees. As she and other Clinton supporters explain it, electing Gore president would be seen as an endorsement of the centrist path that Clinton set for the Democratic Party.
"You cannot stress too much the extent to which he has led the path the Democrats have followed over the past eight years," she says. "He really drew the road map for the Democrats and other people followed it."
Nor has Gore been the only beneficiary of Clinton's continued zeal for campaigning. The president's efforts are also designed to help other Democrats running for office, including first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wants to be elected senator from New York.
Of course, by continuing to be an active campaigner for Democrats, Clinton also remains a big target for Republicans. Even though the president has only eight more months in office, Rep. Dan Burton, who as chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee is the de facto leader of the Clinton-haters club, continues to investigate new allegations of White House wrongdoing.
But Zogby says the Republicans' continued attacks on the president do not discourage potential Gore voters -- they help the GOP invigorate long-time Clinton haters. "There is an element out there -- about one-third of the voters -- who refuse to even acknowledge that Bill Clinton was ever president," Zogby quips.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.