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    Clinton's help may be too late for Gore


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000

    He would like nothing more than to be this year's October Surprise, the man who saves Al Gore's political butt in the final days of this presidential election. For weeks, Bill Clinton has been waiting and watching, hoping for a call to battle that was faintly sounded on Friday. In response to a reporter's question, Gore said he would welcome Clinton's help in the homestretch of this election, but he sounded tentative and not ready to say exactly how he thinks the president could be helpful. "This is a campaign that I am running on my own," he reminded everyone. For his part, Clinton said he wasn't sure how much he could influence the election at this late date, as if to suggest the vice president may have waited too late to ask for his help. And with the Middle East on the verge of war and everything, he's not sure how much time he will have for politics, anyway.

    The political chattering class has been saying Gore had to choose between defeat and what the vice president might call a risky rescue scheme -- bringing Clinton into the campaign. Sure, there would be risks. The president continues to get high marks for his job performance but low marks for his character. He would remind voters of everything Gore has been trying to get them to forget about this White House -- Monica, impeachment, renting out the Lincoln bedroom to campaign contributors. And, perhaps worst of all, he would remind voters of Gore's shortcomings as a candidate.

    In Gore's mind, the humiliation must be greater than any risk. After being advised to be his own man, Gore is now being told he needs to be Bill Clinton's man. After being urged to distance himself from a disgraced president, Gore is now hearing that he should cozy up to a man who lied to his family, his staff, a grand jury and the nation. How Gore must resent hearing that he needs this guy to hoist him over the high bar against a lightweight Texas governor. Clinton is everything Gore isn't as a campaigner -- bright and charming, with unerring political instincts and a jawbreaker of a punch.

    This personality-challenged vice president tried to run as his own man. But he was having trouble closing the deal with many voters. Congressional Democrats and party leaders have been trying to persuade him that Clinton belongs on the campaign trail, not in a political lockbox. I can just hear Democrats telling Gore, "Sure Al, you run your campaign, just let the president in the ring." Exactly what role the president will play hasn't been decided (don't expect another Al and Bill bus tour), but at least he will no longer be the invisible man in this election.

    Gore's turnaround, if that's what it turns out to be, came on the same day the New York Times published a fascinating front-page story on the deep chill in the Gore-Clinton relationship. The newspaper reported: "After eight years together, here is the state of the relationship between President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore: Mr. Gore won't pick up the phone. He doesn't call, and Mr. Clinton doesn't know why. Until the recent crisis in the Middle East, the two had spoken only a handful of times since the week of this summer's Democratic convention. Mr. Clinton is both hurt by the personal rebuff and bewildered as to why his political heir won't come to him for advice he is itching to give -- advice the president feels the candidate needs, according to two friends who have discussed this with Mr. Clinton recently."

    Clinton may be hurt and disappointed by Gore's cold shoulder, but the vice president is in no mood to feel his pain. Gore doesn't want his election to be viewed as Bill Clinton's third term or legacy, and for months he had sent this signal to Clinton: No thanks, Mr. President, you just take care of the Middle East and keep raising soft money for Democrats and advising Hillary, and keep your distance from my campaign.

    It wasn't easy for the president, suffering from campaign withdrawal, to sit by and watch Gore squander all those great political assets -- it's the economy, stupid -- he gave him. When Gore wouldn't call him, Clinton called the vice president's campaign aides to offer his unsolicited advice. For example, it was Clinton who called Tucker Eskew, Gore's top strategist, to suggest that the vice president should watch a skit about the first debate on NBC's Saturday Night Live. Gore prepared for his second debate by watching a video of the skit, in which he was depicted as overbearing, rude and orange. The result was that in the second debate, Gore tried too hard to correct that image and fell flat.

    "Mr. Clinton feels frustrated, eager to help but unwilling to insert himself where he's not wanted," the Times story said. "It's beyond him why Mr. Gore can't manage to relate to an audience in the way that comes so effortlessly to him. And he's convinced that Mr. Gore moved too slowly to capitalize on his successful convention performance -- in the president's view, running away from him when he ought to be running on their record."

    Clinton obviously can't take a hint. On the campaign trail, Gore has avoided mentioning the president by name. He speaks of "our team" or "our administration." According to the Times story, it took the recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East to bring the president and vice president together. "The vice president left the campaign trail to attend White House briefings on the crisis," the newspaper reported. "It was the first time Mr. Gore had set foot in the White House since a state dinner on May 22, and he seems to be going out of his way to avoid appearing with the president. His office was even reluctant to release a photo taken last week of the two of them together -- and initially instructed the White House not to put it out, either."

    Gore finally has realized he could run from Clinton but he couldn't hide. He was beginning to look like a stubborn ingrate for going to such extremes to keep his distance from the president. Even if Clinton lends a hand in the remaining days of this campaign, everything suggests this political marriage is over.

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