WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton strides into the State House Convention Center in Little Rock, Ark., tonight to greet more than 500 of his dearest friends, he will do something that historians say no president has ever done before: raise money for his designated successor in a contested nominating process.
Tonight's fund-raiser, expected to bring in more than $500,000 for Vice President Al Gore, has also raised some scattered questions about the propriety of the titular head of the Democratic Party aiding a candidate who has yet to secure his party's nomination.
Not only has a president apparently never raised money for his No. 2 at the outset of a competitive nomination race, but until now no president has even endorsed his vice president this early in the process, said Michael R. Beschloss, a presidential scholar.
Gore's sole rival for the Democratic nomination, Bill Bradley, should not be surprised, if none too pleased, either. Notwithstanding recent reports of tensions between Clinton and Gore, never have a president and vice president had a closer relationship, scholars agree. And in no previous presidential campaign has there been more of a need to raise cash.
"From Bradley's standpoint, it probably seems quite unfair -- but wholly predictable," said James McGregor Burns, a presidential scholar at the University of Maryland whose book "Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation" will be published in November.
Tonight's Gore fund-raiser is the first of a series that will star the president, including two dinners in August and two more fund-raisers planned for late September.
After months of tension between the Clinton and Gore camps, the two sides appear to have settled on a division of labor in the Gore campaign: Let the vice president put forward his own policy initiatives, while the president raises money offstage.
"The president has said on many occasions he strongly supports the vice president in this effort and will do anything he can, whatever way he can," said Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the Gore campaign. "And we appreciate what he's doing."
Bradley campaign officials declined to comment on the president's activity. And a consultant close to the Bradley campaign suggested that the fund-raisers could actually help Bradley, a former U.S. senator from New Jersey and professional basketball player.
The more Gore is linked to Clinton, the more attractive Bradley will be to those Democrats who are weary of Clinton and those they closely associate with him.
Even so, from a historical standpoint, tonight's gathering is remarkable. In the past 60 years, every vice president has sought the presidency, but with little or no support from his boss in the Oval Office.
Dwight D. Eisenhower famously told reporters that he could not think of any positive contributions that his vice president, Richard M. Nixon, had made to his administration. He proceeded to be less than helpful as Nixon fended off undeclared challenges from Nelson A. Rockefeller and Barry M. Goldwater to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 1960.
In 1968, after Lyndon B. Johnson chose not to run for re-election, he fumed openly at Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey's efforts to distance himself from Johnson's policies in Vietnam. Johnson even urged Rockefeller, then New York's governor, to seek the Republican nomination, hinting that he would back Rockefeller over his own vice president, said Robert Dallek, a Johnson historian.
Privately, Johnson even said he supported Nixon over Humphrey, for whom he campaigned only in the last two days of the race, and only in his home state of Texas, Dallek said.
Twenty years later, in 1988, Ronald Reagan refused to step into the heavily contested Republican primary and endorse Vice President George Bush over a pack of rivals.
"He didn't do anything to hurt Bush, but he didn't do much to help him, either," said David Kozak, a presidential scholar at Gannon University in Erie, Pa.
The former president himself, of course, has now forsaken his own vice president, Dan Quayle, in favor of his son, George W. Bush.
Such coolness has been intrinsic to the presidency and vice presidency, Burns said. Presidential candidates have historically chosen their running mates to "balance the ticket," purposely finding partners from different regions of the country with different politics and constituents. That was a recipe for tension.
But Clinton broke the mold, choosing in Gore another Southern baby boomer from the center of the Democratic Party, the two having established perhaps the closest working relationship of any president and vice president.
Their relationship has been so close that as voters have tired of the Clinton White House, Gore has been forced to spend much of the summer trying to establish his own identity.