Special prosecutor or no, investigation could leave Gore in trouble

September 10, 1997|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The conventional wisdom in the political community is that Vice President Al Gore's image as the Goody Two-shoes of the Clinton administration may be undermined by his role in raising money for the 1996 campaign from his White House office.

But that speculation, accurate though it may be, misses a critical point -- and a potentially far more serious threat to his political future.

It is true, of course, that Mr. Gore's reputation for probity has been a valuable asset for him as a senator from Tennessee, as vice president and as a potential candidate for president in 2000. But that reputation already has been tarnished by the evidence that the vice president took an aggressive role in the egregious excesses in fund-raising undertaken by the White House.

And that is the case whether or not Mr. Gore becomes the subject of a special prosecutor investigation just as he is trying to put together his presidential campaign. A recent opinion poll shows Mr. Gore's approval rating has dropped from 65 percent favorable and 30 percent unfavorable in January to 54 percent favorable and 37 percent unfavorable last month.

But the vice president's potential as a candidate also can be significantly affected by the way he handles himself in dealing with the pressures of such a controversy. If Mr. Gore proves inept, the inevitable result will be a judgment among political professionals that he could be a risky candidate to carry the Democratic banner.

And if that happens, it would be no surprise if several other Democrats became emboldened to compete with Mr. Gore for the nomination.

Mr. Gore's potential problem here is magnified by the fact that he already has a reputation as less than sure-footed in dealing with political heat. And that reputation has been enhanced by the backing and filling in which he has engaged in trying to explain himself on both the 1996 fund-raiser at the Buddhist temple in Los Angeles and the issue of his part in dialing for dollars from the White House.

He has shown a tendency to program himself with a defensive line -- ''no controlling legal authority'' is the classic case but not the only one -- and try to stick to it. But running for president requires the ability to react on your feet quickly to issues that may be raised at any time.

Mr. Gore has had some bright moments. His performances in vice presidential debates have earned good marks, and he won great applause for his televised debate with Ross Perot over the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. In all of those cases, however, Mr. Gore was dealing with substantive issues rather than attacks on his own persona.

More to the point, there is a world of difference between performing as vice president and running for the presidency. Presidential candidates operate under unrelenting scrutiny from the press and their opponents, and their every utterance is parsed for both accuracy and consistency as well as for hidden meanings.

The one time Mr. Gore was in that position, as a candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries of 1988, he was uncertain enough to be widely written off by political professionals as not ready for prime time. But that was almost a decade ago, and Mr. Gore had managed to erase most of the those memories.

Mr. Gore may be the odds-on favorite for the nomination in 2000, but odds-on horses lose at the track every day. And the vice president has some difficult hurdles to pass.

The most imposing would be, of course, the appointment of a special prosecutor who might still be conducting another of those marathon inquiries even as Mr. Gore would be trying to run in the primaries.

But even if the vice president dodges that bullet, Mr. Gore must prove to his party and the voters that he is a leader who can think on his feet and perform effectively under pressure.

The evidence so far is that few voters are paying much attention to the controversy over fund-raising. But that will change as the time arrives for serious decisions about 2000.

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

Pub Date: 9/10/97

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