Gore makes it official: He's running

Vice president begins to distance himself from Clinton scandals

June 17, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CARTHAGE, Tenn. -- Vice President Al Gore, beginning the delicate process of separating himself from Bill Clinton, formally opened his presidential drive yesterday with a promise to provide "moral leadership" for America.

"As important as prosperity is, there is more to long for," he told 4,000 supporters at a countrified announcement ceremony in his family's Tennessee hometown. "There is a hunger and thirst for goodness among us."

In what is likely to be a central theme of his candidacy, Gore stressed his experience, particularly in national security.

In doing so, he drew an implicit contrast with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who took office in 1994 and lacks foreign policy training.

"The world today is complex and volatile in the extreme, more than it has ever been," said Gore, 51, who was a veteran of 16 years in Congress before becoming vice president. "You deserve a leader who has been tested in it, who knows how to protect America and secure peace and freedom."

He said "revolutionary improvement" in public education was essential to keeping economic prosperity going. Throwing "crumbs of compassion" at Americans is no way to do that, Gore added, apparently in a swipe at Bush, the Republican front-runner, who likes to call himself a "compassionate conservative."

Unsuccessful in his first try for the presidency, 11 years ago, Gore starts out as a strong favorite for the Democratic nomination.

His only rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, lags far behind in national opinion surveys, though he is showing signs of strength in New Hampshire, the first primary state.

In seeking to become only the second sitting vice president in more than a century to be elected president, Gore confronts a unique combination of problems.

He must step out from Clinton's shadow and establish his own identity -- a tricky maneuver for any loyal vice president. By announcing his candidacy now, months earlier than initially planned, Gore says he has freed himself to differ publicly with Clinton on the issues.

Gore is trying to overcome his stiffness as a public speaker, a liability made worse by comparisons to Clinton, a master political performer. Gore recently brought in a speech coach, Michael Sheehan, who offered advice as the vice president rehearsed his address here Tuesday night.

Gore is also seeking ways to capitalize on the successes of the Clinton-Gore administration, particularly the booming national economy, even while persuading scandal-weary voters to overlook his close association with an impeached president.

His appearance in Carthage, along with a flurry of high-profile interviews this week, reveal that he plans to use both words and symbols to put distance between himself and the man who chose him as his running mate in 1992.

In his 22-minute speech, Gore pledged to bring his "own values of faith and family" to the White House. Underscoring that point, the only people joining him onstage were close family members, including his wife, Tipper, their four children and Gore's 86-year-old mother, Pauline.

His eldest daughter, Karenna, eight months pregnant with their first grandchild, introduced her father because Tipper Gore awoke yesterday with a mild case of laryngitis.

The vice president mentioned Clinton's name twice but made no reference to the scandals of the administration. In interviews this week, he termed the president's behavior "awful" and "inexcusable" and said the Monica Lewinsky scandal had "wasted time" for the Clinton administration.

The Gores were also featured in a prime-time interview last night on ABC's "20/20." Through much of the interview with Diane Sawyer, the vice president clasped hands with Tipper, his high school sweetheart and wife of 29 years, whom many regard as one of his strongest campaign assets.

Gore aides refuse to blame the Clinton scandals for polls showing the vice president trailing not only Bush but also another potential GOP opponent, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, by double-digit margins.

But the drawbacks of the Lewinsky scandal are undeniable, said some Gore supporters who came to the verdant, rolling Middle Tennessee countryside to see him launch his campaign on a mild sunny morning.

"They weren't his fault, but I do feel like that's going to hurt," said Volene Barnes, a retired teacher from Lebanon, Tenn.

"It will be a problem," agreed Arnold Stuke, a state legislator from Soddy Daisy, Tenn., who said Gore was right to "start talking about the values that are so important to him and to the rest of us in this country." He praised the speech as "the best one I have ever heard him give."

After the cowboy-hatted Nashville singer John Michael Montgomery warmed up the crowd with country tunes like his pickup hit, "Be My Baby (Tonight)," the candidate and his family took the stage to the beat of Shania Twain's "Rock This County."

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