No longer a boy scout Al Gore: Vice president's 1996 campaign fund-raising poses legal, political problems.

September 11, 1997

THE GOOD NEWS for Vice President Al Gore is that a new Gallup poll shows his popularity remains intact despite revelations of questionable fund-raising practices. The bad news is that his troubles are far from over.

''Unseemly'' is the most charitable way to characterize these campaign activities. The scene before a Senate committee of robed Buddhist clergy confessing to violations of federal law in holding a fund-raiser for the vice president in their California temple was the best advertisement yet for campaign-finance reform.

Mr. Gore's explanation? He wasn't aware of the fund-raising efforts and thought he was delivering a routine speech to supporters.

Then there are those 48 telephone calls the vice president made from the White House to Democratic contributors. The legality of these calls isn't clear, given the murky statutory language and judicial interpretations.

But now Democratic Party officials admit some of the money raised by the vice president was diverted away from party activities to direct support of candidates -- a legal distinction that so troubled Attorney General Janet Reno she ordered a 30-day review of the vice president's activities. This could lead to appointment of a special prosecutor.

Again, the need for campaign reform is obvious. A bill to ban unlimited ''soft money'' contributions to political parties, with bipartisan sponsors, is stalled in the Senate. Even with President Clinton's support, chances of overcoming a filibuster later this fall are slim.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gore's credibility is undergoing steady erosion. His ''boy scout'' image as an upstanding, follow-the-rules official has been shattered. At the least, he is now viewed as just another politician, willing to bend the rules in the quest to retain elective office.

Republicans are gleeful. So are supporters of Democratic House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, who figures to be Mr. Gore's main opponent for the party's presidential nomination in TC three years. A vice president with tarnished ethics may turn off voters.

The greatest threat to Mr. Gore is a lengthy independent investigation of his fund-raising. Special prosecutors come to their tasks determined to justify their existence. That could mean an unreasonably long inquiry that lasts into the 2000 campaign season. It might even lead to indictments.

Whether the vice president skated on the edge of the law or went beyond that point may turn on legal semantics. To the public, though, it is another strong signal that something should be done to curb rampant fund-raising that far exceeds rational limits. Neither political party has clean hands. Each is culpable. Members of Congress who fail to clean up the mess they have intentionally created will have to answer to voters a year from now.

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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