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The making of Al Gore

Gore must step to forefront, but walk between left, right.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 13, 2000

LOS ANGELES -- It is a screenplay without an ending.

A handsome candidate for president, billed as intellectually brilliant but emotionally distant, hopes to seize the moment that could propel him to the White House. But first he must juggle the philandering mentor, the mentor's ambitious wife, the pious running mate and the party faithful who are supportive but hardly fervent.

That's a demanding role for Al Gore, even in Hollywood.

In a town that embraces President Clinton as warmly as a Barbra Streisand ballad, Gore's goal is to push the president out of the spotlight and take center stage at this week's Democratic National Convention.

The Democratic presidential candidate has to preach morality in the back yard of a movie industry that knows no limits while reminding the nation of the Clinton administration's accomplishments. He has to sound like a moderate, to fight Republican George W. Bush, and a liberal, to stop inroads by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

At the same time, Gore will continue to spin his selection of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the first Jewish person on a major party's national ticket, as a wider symbol of tolerance even as he fields questions about their differences on key issues.

And he has to do all of this with the Los Angeles air thick with memories of Camelot and John F. Kennedy, who won the Democratic nomination 40 years ago in this same city.

Playing multiple roles will be tough, particularly for a politician whose public speaking doesn't come close to more natural performances by Ronald Reagan or Clinton.

Gore isn't the first vice president to use a political convention to move out of his boss' shadow while still taking some credit for the administration's accomplishments. The last to do it was George Bush in 1988, when Reagan appeared on the first night of the convention in New Orleans to say goodbye and hand over the reins.

"So, George, I'm in your corner," Reagan said. "I'm ready to volunteer a little advice now and then, and offer a pointer or two on strategy, if asked. I'll help keep the facts straight or just stand back and cheer. But, George, just one personal request: Go out there and win one for the Gipper."

Then Reagan flew off the next morning to his California ranch and stayed on vacation until Labor Day.

In Los Angeles, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton are making a bigger splash and staying longer than Gore. Michael Bolton, Cher, Melissa Etheridge and other stars are expected to perform Saturday night at a fundraiser for the first lady's New York Senate campaign. Today, Streisand will host a $10-million fundraiser for Clinton's presidential library.

On Monday night in the downtown Staples Arena, it will be Clinton's turn to give Gore a proper introduction. But all summer, it has been clear that this president is having a tough time coming to grips with the end of his term.

Clinton has offered Gore some very public, and unsolicited, campaign advice. His jabs at George W. Bush were so effective that Bush's father, mother and brother rushed to the Texas governor's defense. Last week, he talked with reporters about Gore's selection of Lieberman before Gore did.

This week, there actually will be two goodbyes.

After Clinton speaks at the convention Monday night, he and Gore will meet Tuesday in Michigan for another symbolic passing of the Democratic torch. But the president's nationally televised convention speech will be the one that counts.

Even Democrats who stuck with Clinton through his impeachment say it's time for him to clear the way for Gore.

"The spotlight belongs over here now," said Myrtle Smith-Carroll, a Democratic National Committee member from St. Petersburg.

As Gore tries to take credit for the soaring economy, falling crime rates and plunging welfare rolls under Clinton, he continues to distance himself from the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment. He sent a strong message in that regard with his selection of Lieberman, the first Democratic senator to criticize the president's affair as immoral.

"If there was a vulnerability, it was the hangover of the Clinton morality scandal," said Jacksonville lawyer Steve Pajcic, a one-time Democratic candidate for governor who supported Bill Bradley over Gore in the presidential primaries. "The reality is Al Gore is saying, "I agree with what Lieberman said.' "

But Gore and Lieberman do not agree on several high-profile issues.

Lieberman has opposed affirmation action. He has supported experimenting with tuition vouchers and allowing workers to invest a portion of Social Security in the stock market, which he now describes as a fleeting dalliance. He also has advocated the creation of a missile defense system that is similar to Bush's proposal.

Gore is on the opposite sides of all of those issues. He spins their differences as a positive.

"The policy will be the policy I decide," the vice president said on one network morning show last week. "But I think it is a strength, not a weakness, an asset, not a liability . . . to have somebody in that room when the decision is made who can bring up the strong points that ought to be considered, to try to make it work for all people."

There also are lingering questions about how voters will react to Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew.

Gore invites comparisons to Kennedy, who became the first Catholic president. But Kennedy downplayed his religion in 1960 until he was forced to hold a news conference to pledge he would not consult the pope on policy issues.

Now Gore and Lieberman are dealing directly with religion, celebrating Lieberman's Jewish faith and using his selection to symbolize their commitment to break down walls for Americans of all races and religions. Pollsters say how much voters will consider religion is difficult to gauge, and most Republicans and Democrats say publicly that it won't matter.

"I think America has long since moved beyond those sorts of factors," said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida.

Others are less certain.

"I've got question marks," acknowledged former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Charles Whitehead, who praised Lieberman's selection and said he has no personal concerns. "I don't know how it is going to play out."

For Gore, the more significant convention challenge is to clearly define his own views for voters who are just tuning in to the presidential campaign.

Is he the Democratic centrist who would continue the moderate politics of Clinton that swing voters found so appealing? Or is he the liberal portrayed by the Bush campaign, forced to the left during the primaries, pressured by labor unions and hooked on government programs?

Clinton redefined the Democratic Party by embracing issues such as welfare reform, crime fighting and fiscal responsibility that had been the Republicans' bread and butter. Like Clinton, Gore and Lieberman are disciples of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which cast aside big government themes for a blend of government and personal responsibility.

"I've been very clear, since the day I began this campaign, about what I am proposing: an economic policy that's tried and tested, and built on our values," Gore said in a speech to the council last month. "Fiscal discipline as the foundation. A new generation of investments, to empower our people and unleash their potential. No runaway spending; no paybacks for the powerful interests; no budget-busting tax proposals."

Gore campaign officials say those views reflect the real Gore, and that their mission this week is to make sure moderate suburban voters hear them. They say their candidate and their party are not the liberal versions of 1988, when Republicans hammered on Michael Dukakis' opposition of the death penalty and support of prison furloughs for violent criminals.

"We won't be defined by George W. Bush in the way his father defined Dukakis in 1988," Gore consultant Tad Devine said last week.

Even as he aims for moderates and independent voters, though, Gore is being forced to keep one eye on the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

He has strained to secure endorsements from labor unions who dislike the Clinton administration's free-trade policies. Meanwhile Nader has edged up to about 8 percent of the vote in some opinion polls, with more than a third of labor union members telling pollsters they will consider voting for the Green Party candidate.

Those threats to the Democratic base have forced Gore to turn to a new slogan that harkens back to traditional class-warfare politics by insisting the election is a battle between "the people and the powerful." In a tight race, even a modest loss of Democratic voters could cost Gore the election.

"The Nader vote has to understand they are much better off with Gore and Lieberman than with a protest vote for Nader," said state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who heads Gore's Florida campaign.

Blending all of these messages in one compelling performance is Gore's challenge this week -- if Clinton doesn't steal the show first.

- Washington bureau chief Sara Fritz contributed to this report.

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