Gore's political footwork puts him on inside track ON THE POLITICAL SCENE



WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton was about to depart from the White House lawn on Thursday for the Pacific Rim

meeting in Seattle, Vice President Al Gore stepped forward to introduce him to the television cameras. Try to remember how many times Gore's immediate predecessor, Dan Quayle, ever was given that task by his boss, George Bush.

The answer is never, which is not all that surprising considering how Quayle was politically snake-bitten through most of his four years as vice president.

Bush occasionally brought Quayle into camera range but generally he treated him as if he were an escapee from a leper colony. Clinton, by contrast, seems never to pass up an opportunity to push Gore forward, to give him highly visible jobs and to commend him on his completion of them.

Thus, before the president left for Seattle, he profusely praised his understudy for his "stunning" debate performance against Ross Perot on the North American Free Trade Agreement, whose passage Clinton said resulted in part from Gore's debating skills.

The night before, when the president strode before the television cameras at the White House to comment on the House vote approving NAFTA, Gore again was at his side, as he has been on a considerable number of other occasions, from Gore's presentation of his report on "reinventing government" to relatively routine announcements.

What all this means in cold political terms is that Clinton not only has elevated his vice president to an unprecedented policy role in any administration but also is clearly giving him an inside track for the next presidential election in which Clinton himself is not a candidate.

Gore's political fortunes, to be sure, are closely tied to those of Clinton himself, as is the case inevitably with any vice president.

If Clinton, who has been up and down but mostly down in his first year as president, should run for re-election and lose, all the positioning that he has afforded Gore probably won't do much good for him in 2000. But if the team of Clinton and Gore is re-elected in 1996 and a second Clinton term is a success, Gore is likely to go into 2000 as the odds-on choice to be the next Democratic presidential nominee.

Such a prospect naturally is predicated on Gore's continuing to perform well in the visible jobs Clinton gives him and doing or saying nothing that will sully his image and reputation in his own right.

In a notably different way, President Richard M. Nixon gave his vice president, Spiro Agnew, a long leash from which to build a national reputation as a social critic and partisan political assault weapon.

Agnew might well have become the Republican Party's 1976 presidential nominee had he not been found to have taken money in brown paper bags in his White House office. He was removed from the line of succession in a plea bargain that swapped his resignation for freedom from incarceration.

The time is long past since the vice presidency was regarded, in John Nance Garner's sanitized words, as not worth "a bucket of warm spit." Every vice president at least since Walter F. Mondale under President Jimmy Carter has been brought into the inner councils of the White House and has become a political celebrity in his own right. Quayle, for all his shortcomings, was a red-hot ticket on the Republican fund-raising circuit, breaking all records for bringing money into the party coffers.

Gore promises to be no different. He is in heavy demand for Democratic events around the country, and for all the ribbing he takes for being "wooden" and "boring," he has developed into a relaxed and even -- at times -- humorous performer on television.

His command of detail was underscored in the debate against Perot, and above all he has demonstrated the single critical trait needed to keep him high in the president's regard -- loyalty.

Only five years ago, as a presidential candidate in 1988, Gore was an unseasoned and dismal failure. At only age 39 when he launched his bid, he tried to be all things to all men and flamed out.

But last year he found a niche as a team player on the road with Clinton and has been sure-footed ever since. His role as chief helpmate on NAFTA only enhances the prospects for his own political future.

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