Reno's decision major relief for Gore 2000 campaign

November 30, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It would be imprudent to say that Vice President Al Gore is totally out of the woods now that Attorney General Janet Reno has decided against a special prosecutor to look into his role in fund-raising for the 1996 campaign.

But it is reasonable to say that if she had ruled otherwise, his campaign probably would have been severely compromised. It is not hard to imagine the problems he could have encountered raising money for 2000 when he was under a cloud from raising money for 1996.

Nor is it hard to imagine that there are Democrats who might be deterred -- or at least delayed -- from joining the campaign of a presidential candidate with some latter-day independent counsel Kenneth Starr nipping at his ankles.

Mr. Gore is not home free because Ms. Reno still must make decisions on whether to call for special prosecutors to examine the fund-raising roles of President Clinton and Harold Ickes, the deputy White House chief of staff who ran the 1996 re-election campaign. If they become targets, the vice president's name is likely to come up from time to time.

Even if that doesn't happen, Mr. Gore already has suffered a certain amount of tangential damage from the disclosures of the wretched excesses of the Clinton-Gore campaign in using the White House to raise money for the 1996 race.

Political missteps

On the face of it, he appears to have done no more than vice presidents are usually expected to do, but perhaps to have done in an impolitic way. His story about the Buddhist temple in Los Angeles is obviously a hoot. If he didn't know that was a fund-raiser, he shouldn't be allowed out on the streets without his mommy.

The operative question, of course, is whether the vice president has been tarnished enough so that other leading Democrats will be encouraged to compete against him in the primaries. The most obvious rival is House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, although some Democrats now believe he will forego such a campaign.

Both Bill Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey, and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska have the kind of squeaky clean reputations that might be considered an asset of added value right now. And both have been sending signals that they may run if the opportunity seems ripe.

Mr. Gore also may be challenged by two other senators who question his liberalism, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Mr. Kerry's potential is hard to measure, but he has been a popular figure in Massachusetts and some administration political experts believe he could be formidable.

Mr. Wellstone has been considered a political gadfly, but the electorate these days is quirky enough that no one should be summarily written off.

There is also a basic question about Mr. Gore himself. The vice president has earned high marks for his performance in six years with President Clinton. And he added to his reservoir of good will within the Democratic Party by his strong partisan performance during the 1998 campaign. Indeed, it can be argued that he did more than any other individual to give the Democrats the success they enjoyed.

A grueling race

But Mr. Gore has not yet demonstrated that he can function effectively as a presidential candidate. There isn't any reason to believe that he cannot do so. But running for president imposes unique demands on a politician, as a much younger Mr. Gore discovered when he competed ineffectually for the nomination in 1988.

The key for Mr. Gore is to show that he can react effectively on his feet if faced with some awkward situation or difficult questions. Fairly or not, he has acquired a reputation as a politician who needs to be carefully programmed. It will be a while before the press and political community forget his "no controlling legal authority" response to questions about his fund-raising.

Mr. Gore has formidable assets, of course. If the economy remains as healthy as it is today for another 18 months or so, the vice president will have a strong case to make for continuity. Mr. Clinton has given Mr. Gore special influence over the White House political apparatus and de facto control of the Democratic National Committee.

And, of course, the vice president benefits most from the atmosphere of inevitability that develops around any front runner for a nomination -- an atmosphere that would be quickly dissipated if he were the target of a special prosecutor.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 11/30/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.