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Clinton doing all he can to put Gore in his job

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 1999


WASHINGTON -- Republicans are so convinced that Vice President Al Gore's campaign for president is undermined by his friendship with President Clinton that they have even purchased billboards picturing the two men hugging.

"One of our greatest presidents," the billboard says, quoting from Gore's statement late last year on the day that Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives.

The purpose of the billboard is obvious: It is meant to be a continual reminder to voters that Gore has shared in the president's disgrace.

You'd think that would be enough to convince Gore that he must keep his distance from Clinton. And in fact, Gore has decided to draw sharp distinctions between himself and the president.

"Inexcusable" is the word Gore now uses to describe the president's behavior during the Monica Lewinsky affair. And hugging in public is something the two men no longer engage in.

But the heavy burden of "Clinton fatigue" on the Gore campaign does not entirely rule out efforts by the president to assist his vice president. In fact, Clinton has begun making a concerted effort to be an asset to Gore.

The president, who still controls what one political insider calls "the biggest microphone in the land," has decided to use that big microphone in ways that will assist the Gore campaign without being a part of it.

Just last weekend during the Florida Democratic Party's meeting in Orlando, for example, the president made a point of giving Gore credit for being a part of every laudable thing the administration has accomplished.

Sometimes, Clinton's pro-Gore message is more subtle, as it was during a recent news conference in the White House Rose Garden on medical errors. Responding to an Institute of Medicine report on the widespread problem of errors in treatment, Clinton declared his administration was going to do its best to solve this problem.

Of course, it came as no surprise to anyone that the president would go on record in opposition to medical errors, much as he has spoken out in favor of motherhood and in opposition to murder.

But the point of the news conference was not to put Clinton on the obvious right side of an issue over which there is no debate. The point became apparent when the president said he would rely on Gore to oversee the effort and called upon the vice president to report within 60 days on steps the federal government is taking to reduce medical errors.

In essence, the president used his big microphone to cast Gore in the role of being the one man who can stop these senseless medical mistakes. This is the kind of flattering endorsement that only a president -- even a disgraced president -- can bestow.

Not all of Clinton's efforts to help Gore have been as easy, however. In fact, it seems Clinton is prepared to take serious political risks.

Many analysts believe Clinton was trying to assist Gore this month when he spoke to the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, pleading for more attention to the rights of labor and environmental standards. By emphasizing these issues, the president played to the union members and environmentalist demonstrators, whose support is necessary if Gore hopes to win the nomination.

But Clinton's remarks also undermined the efforts of his own trade representatives at the WTO meeting, who ultimately failed to persuade the organization to begin a new round of global trade talks.

Critics said the president shot himself in the foot. Perhaps he did. But he also seems to have decided that it was better to suffer a short-term setback in trade talks than to face the humiliation of having his vice president rejected by the Democratic Party.

As Clinton tries to shape his legacy for history, he is aware that rejection of Gore in favor of Bill Bradley would be a repudiation of his presidency. He also is trying to repay a tremendous debt he owes to Gore for standing by him during impeachment.

Over the next year, we are likely to see many more instances in which the president will trim his own objectives to fit the purposes of the Gore campaign. In that sense, the Clinton administration has already ended and the Gore administration has begun.

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