Gore conspicuous by absence

Candidate's in Iowa as leading Democrats gather in Baltimore

Aides deny any Clinton rift

July 14, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When the Democratic Leadership Council convenes its annual "national conversation" in Baltimore today, one name will be conspicuously absent from a list of participants that will include President Clinton, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and a host of governors, mayors and state legislators.

Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic establishment's hope for retaining the White House, who co-founded the centrist DLC and headlined the DLC's first "national conversation," declined an invitation to speak this time.

Gore's absence today is sure to fuel speculation about a rift between a telegenic-but-tainted president and an often-overshadowed vice president who is struggling to gain traction in his quest for the White House. Adding another twist to the day's events will be Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner, who will appear at a Baltimore youth center just as Clinton begins speaking, then will dash off to a fund-raiser at a Baltimore hotel.

Gore and Clinton aides say there is less meaning to the vice president's absence than meets the eye. Gore, they said, had simply committed to campaign events today in Iowa.

"Any day in which the president does an event is somehow going to be construed as competition with the vice president," a senior White House aide said. "We don't know how to get around that anymore."

Gore aides adamantly deny that there is any strain between Clinton and Gore, a team that has forged one of the closest working relationships in the history of the White House.

But they acknowledge that as a presidential candidate, Gore must show that he can step out of Clinton's shadow. While that does not mean there is tension between the two men, Gore's aides say, it does mean that sometimes the vice president must avoid sharing a stage with the president.

Gore was conspicuously absent from high-profile White House events these past weeks. But he has been busy unveiling cancer-fighting proposals in Philadelphia, gun-control and crime prevention ideas in New York, faith-based solutions to social issues in Atlanta and an education agenda in Lamoni, Iowa.

Today, in Iowa, the vice president will propose measures to combat rural crime, especially the growing popularity of methamphetamines.

"Obviously, Gore is out there having to campaign on his own," said Bob Squier, his media consultant and a longtime adviser. "At some point, he has to step out and say what he's going to do as president, not just what he's done as vice president."

The Gore campaign has been in a quandary since late June, when anonymous quotations from Clinton aides began appearing in the news media, complaining that the vice president seemed too eager to declare how "inexcusable" he found Clinton's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Now, if Gore avoids the president, it is interpreted as proof that the rift is real. If, on the other hand, the vice president appears with Clinton, he risks being upstaged by a gifted speaker who could underscore Gore's reputation for woodenness.

Clinton and Gore have not appeared on a public stage together since May 26, when the president journeyed to Texas to hail his vice president's "unparalleled combination of creativity and energy, experience and determination." The appearance was intended, in part, to heal Gore's bruised feelings over a spontaneous call that Clinton made to a reporter days before, in which Clinton hinted that he had been frustrated with Gore's lurching campaign.

In Texas, Gore followed Clinton's warmly greeted introduction with a 40-minute policy speech that was widely derided as stiff, bureaucratic and uninspired -- a far cry from the smooth, graceful appearances that are Clinton's trademark.

The next day, a Gallup Poll indicated that 52 percent of the public would be less likely to support Gore if Clinton actively helped him campaign. Only 29 percent said Clinton's help would make them more inclined to vote for Gore.

Since then, the vice president appears to have taken the hint. He has avoided White House events that he once would have relished attending. Gore skipped a June 28 budget announcement in which Clinton unveiled projections of $1 trillion in unanticipated budget surpluses over the next 15 years. Nor did Gore attend the June 29 unveiling of the administration's plan to overhaul Medicare, a proposal that is sure to be central to the 2000 campaign.

Yesterday, as Clinton was speaking out for the Senate Democrats' version of a popular patient protection bill, Gore was boarding Air Force II en route to Nebraska.

The DLC conference this week seems tailor-made for Gore, who in 1985 helped announce the DLC's formation. One of Gore's chief policy advisers, Elaine Kamarck, is a scholar at the DLC's think tank. Gore's campaign chairman, Tony Coelho, is a founding member. Indeed, the Baltimore conference is specifically intended to identify the next wave of centrist Democratic leaders, said DLC President Al From.

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