McALLEN, Texas -- Al Gore's motorcade sweeps across the Rio Grande Valley like a small army. More than 50 vehicles, emergency lights flashing, shepherd his limousine down traffic-free highways that shimmer in the Texas heat.
At the local airport, the vice president scoots aboard his gleaming Air Force jet -- the same one Richard M. Nixon flew to China on his historic journey. With a wave to the cameras, he's aloft again on his own special mission: to become the next president of the United States.
But the perks of power don't necessarily translate into a guaranteed ride to Gore's ultimate goal. The past few months, which featured controversies over his fund-raising role, have only highlighted his vulnerabilities.
At the same time, his strengths have received less attention. After more than two decades on the national scene, the methodical Gore is a seasoned politician. And as vice president, he commands resources his rivals can merely envy, built-in advantages that boosted the last two-term vice president, George Bush, into the Oval Office.
"I think that the more that you do a job the more that you grow into it," Gore says, cooling off with a diet cola in Air Force Two. "And if you approach it the right way, I think you get better at it."
Since late last year, however, his voyage has been anything but smooth.
His embarrassing participation in a political fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple, his clumsy defense of money-raising calls he made from his White House office and a rocky trip to Beijing this spring have had a "destabilizing" effect on the vice president and those around him, said a close Gore adviser.
At the same time, Gore's image may be undergoing a transformation -- from high-tech Boy Scout to money-grubbing pol.
"He's trying to right the ship," says the adviser, who spoke on condition he not be identified.
Gore says he shouldn't have been surprised that his words and actions would be put under a microscope, a tacit admission that he was. "I think that it was, in many ways, a very beneficial experience to have an early encounter with real intensive political scrutiny," he says.
Redefining the office
Six months into his second term, Gore continues to redefine the vice presidency. President Clinton, barred by law from seeking re-election and slowed by a knee injury, has delegated even more responsibility to Gore than he did in his first term. Included has been everything from presiding over ceremonial events in Washington to making tours of flooded areas in the Midwest.
Gore also carries a hefty schedule of partisan chores, largely as a result of the debt-ridden Democratic Party's financial woes. In the past week alone, he's appeared in Texas, Ohio, Florida and Washington, D.C.
With an eye toward 2000, he's reaching out to important elements of the Democratic base. He's making inroads with organized labor and with business leaders in Silicon Valley, courting vote-rich ethnic minority groups and gay and lesbian activists.
Like Clinton, Gore is regarded as a centrist "new Democrat." But these days, liberals see him tilting their way. He's credited by White House aides with pushing behind-the-scenes for more social spending. And he has attacked the Republican-led Congress for trying to skimp on welfare for legal immigrants.
In the first term, by contrast, Gore was among those who pressed Clinton to sign the welfare reform law that ended the federal guarantee of welfare.
Aides say Gore plans to put more emphasis on the concerns of urban and middle-class voters, adding crime and family issues to his portfolio of environmental, technological and foreign policy.
Later this week, he'll address the U.S. Conference of Mayors during a swing through California, the biggest electoral prize of all and a familiar Gore destination.
"He's doing everything," says Bill Carrick, an adviser to House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who has emerged as Gore's chief Democratic rival.
Out of the shadow
As Gore begins the transition from presidential sidekick to presidential contender, he faces a dilemma: The race for the presidency in 2000 is under way, but it's still too early for him to step completely away from Clinton's shadow.
"He is at that point where vice presidents get in a second term, where he's got to start negotiating his own freedom," says political scientist Paul C. Light of the Pew Public Policy Program. "It's clearly the toughest thing for a politician to do: to come out from underneath the person who guarantees him his very visibility."
Gore, who says he'll wait "a couple of years" before announcing his candidacy, won't separate himself from Clinton's policies, according to aides. Indeed, in almost every speech, he celebrates the economic boom of what he calls the Clinton-Gore administration.