NEW YORK -- The early selection of Albert Gore Jr. for the Democratic vice presidential nomination is paying rich dividends for Bill Clinton at this national convention.
The Tennessee senator is getting the kind of television exposure that might have taken weeks to achieve if he had not been chosen until the end of the convention. He is making the rounds of Democratic interest groups while Clinton limits himself to one appearance a day. Gore's schedule is dictated to a large degree by his own history as a politician -- one that has given him, for example, a well-established rapport with environmentalists and Jewish voters concerned about U.S. policy on the Middle East.
Gore is using much of that schedule to make a strong case for Clinton to delegates still harboring doubts about their presidential candidate. Speaking to the American Israel Political Action Committee, Gore didn't discuss relationships with Israel, the standard topic for such meetings. Instead, he tried to sketch a fresh picture of Clinton to the Jewish leaders who might have questions about the presidential candidate's personal history.
"I know how many of you are already committed deeply to helping the Clinton-Gore ticket," he said. "But I want to ask every last one of you to search your hearts for any barrier, any impediment, any reason that would keep you from giving a wholehearted commitment."
The campaign's rationale for this approach is that many of the delegates, as well as voters, have misconceptions about Clinton's personal history -- believing, for example, that he comes from a life of wealth and privilege because he went to Georgetown University and Yale Law School. Thus, Gore is offering biographical detail designed to rebut that notion.
"There's a lot this country is just beginning to understand about Bill Clinton and why he is the candidate for president best able to offer our country the chance for change," he told AIPAC. "Many just don't know that just as so many families here have encountered grief and tragedy and grown in their efforts to deal with it, his family did as well."
Gore went on to describe Clinton's mother as "a young, poor widow" and to recount how Clinton "worked his way through college, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, got one of the finest educations possible and then went back to Arkansas" to help others from similar circumstances.
It may be a bit disingenuous to believe that most of the activists here don't know about Clinton's humble origins in Hope, Ark., his father's death before he was born, his life with an alcoholic stepfather and the help he received from his grandparents. But it is also true many -- perhaps most -- voters don't have that same knowledge and may be likely to see Clinton in terms of the Gennifer Flowers controversy, allegations of draft-dodging during the Vietnam War, and the flap over when and how he smoked marijuana.
In the ebullient atmosphere of a national convention, it is easy for Democrats to forget these controversies from the early stages of the primary season last winter. But the pragmatic professionals also understand they can expect these questions to be raised again by the Bush campaign in the general election.
Indeed, if there is a single dampening agent in the Democratic enthusiasm here, it is the fear that President Bush and his agents will run against him with a "family values" campaign based on attacks on his past personal conduct. Bush's declaration that he is willing to do whatever it takes to get re-elected is taken seriously in light of the kind of campaign he ran against Michael S. Dukakis four years ago.
Al Gore cannot provide Clinton with any lasting inoculation against such attacks down the road. But he can provide a rationale for doubting Democrats who wonder what kind of response the Arkansas governor can make on those questions.
At the same time, the designated vice presidential nominee is reminding Democrats of his own credentials and introducing himself in a positive way to voters watching television coverage of the convention. If Clinton had waited to drop the name during the convention, that opportunity would have been sacrificed.
The Democrats' chances in November won't rise or fall with their nominee for vice president. As the Dan Quayle experience demonstrated so clearly in 1988, voters focus on the top of the ticket. But Al Gore is getting all the mileage that seems to be there.
* You would expect Democrats convening here to be delighted by reports of trouble in the Ross Perot campaign. Not necessarily.
The concern among party professionals is that Mr. Perot will go into a slide before Bill Clinton has given voters who can't swallow President Bush enough reason to switch to him as a way of expressing their dismay. They would like it better if Mr. Perot's stock held up for a few weeks, then declined late in the campaign to 15 percent or less -- the point at which polling experts believe he hurts Mr. Bush more than Mr. Clinton,