How big a problem is the fund-raising scandal for Gore's prospects?

March 26, 1997|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There was some hand-wringing in the White House that Vice President Gore's visit to China might become awkward. The concern seemed to be that the Chinese leaders would be offended if the issue were raised about China's trying to influence -- surreptitiously, of course -- the 1996 presidential election.

That, however, is the least of the problems Al Gore faces as a result of the continuing disclosures that President Clinton and his White House political advisers went to such gross lengths to raise ''soft money'' last year. Although the vice president remains the morning-line favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, it is clear that his position is far less unassailable than it might have seemed three months ago.

To some degree, of course, this change is an inevitable product of the growing questions being raised about just how egregiously aggressive Mr. Clinton himself became in raising money. Every few days there is another piece of information. Over the weekend, for example, it came out that there were specific dollar quotas set for those ostensibly social White House coffees at which Mr. Clinton and, sometimes, Mr. Gore played host. The most important thing about Al Gore, for better or for worse, is his identification with Bill Clinton.

There are specific problems that go beyond that identification. The most obvious is that the vice president himself has conceded he made fund-raising telephone calls from his White House office, albeit on a telephone line paid for by the Democratic National Committee. Those calls may not have broken any law, but they were politically smelly enough that Mr. Gore felt obliged to promise never to make any more.

The problem is compounded by the reputation he had earned over the years as a squeaky-clean politician. Opinion polls have shown consistently -- and to no one's surprise -- that voters thought more highly of Mr. Gore than of President Clinton on questions of personal character.

Nor has Mr. Gore handled the issue well. Although he seemed generally confident and assured in his press conference on the fund-raising calls, he also provided an obvious sound bite seized upon by all the major television networks in which he appeared both defensive and perhaps self-righteous. And he opened himself up to lampooning when he repeatedly said that there was ''no controlling legal authority'' -- a semantic formulation obviously cooked up by his lawyers -- suggesting he had broken the law.

Self-deprecating speech

A few days later, the vice president showed Washington insiders a different side of his personality when he made a self-deprecating speech at the annual dinner of the Gridiron Club, an organization of newspaper reporters and editors. He poked fun at the original press conference, but he was playing to an audience of only about 600 dinner guests, not the tens of millions who watch network news.

In the long run, the dimensions of Mr. Gore's political problem from the fund-raising controversy depend on several variables that cannot be measured now.

The first, obviously, is the extent of the case against the administration in general. If, for example, there are contributors who tell a grand jury or congressional committee that the White House extracted specific amounts with promises of specific rewards, the damage may be limitless.

The same could be true if it is discovered down the road that Mr. Gore had a greater role in fund-raising than has already been disclosed.

Finally, the damage to Mr. Gore depends to some degree on who competes with him for that nomination in 2000. At the very least, he is likely to be facing challenges from House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and several members of the Senate. But the greatest concern is the possibility of someone running who can project a strong image as free of the taint of fund-raising excesses -- that is, someone who can throw that first stone.

By that time, no one will remember or care how Al Gore handled himself in China this week.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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