The election X-factor: Bill Clinton

Gore has distanced himself but praises economic prosperity

Campaign 2000

January 10, 2000|By Paul West, | Paul West,,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa -- In the latest presidential debate, Al Gore proudly laid claim to the progress made under Bill Clinton's leadership, including "the strongest economy in the history of America."

Gore's words pleased Democratic loyalists puzzled by the vice president's failure to capitalize more fully on his most obvious asset: the achievements racked up during seven prosperous years with a Democrat in the White House.

But the most striking aspect of Gore's remarks may well have been the way he delivered them. He managed to brag about the administration's record without ever uttering the words "Bill Clinton."

Exactly two weeks from tonight when the first real test of the campaign, the Iowa caucuses, takes place, Americans will begin to answer the most basic question of this election year: After Clinton, who?

Like all presidential elections, the 2000 vote will be interpreted, to one extent or another, as a referendum on the current administration.

However, the peculiar circumstances surrounding the contest to become Clinton's successor -- an economic boom under a scandal-stained president -- have forced candidates in both parties to pick their way through the political currents with unusual care.

Clinton "is a very serious problem for the Democrats. His legacy is that he's an impeached president," says Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster.

Inevitably, a Gore victory would be seen as a vindication of Clinton or, at the very least, his policies.

But while Gore's effective performance in Saturday's Iowa debate may mark a turning point in his campaign, he is unlikely to abandon his cautious distancing from the man who put him on the national ticket in 1992.

A negative view?

Polls continue to show that most Americans hold a negative view of Clinton personally. How that may manifest itself inside the voting booth this year is one of the unknowns of the presidential race. A highly publicized Senate try in New York by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton only adds to the uncertainty.

"This is a campaign that Al Gore needs to win on his own, with his own voice," says Chris Lehane, his campaign spokesman. "But he'll also look to his friends to help, and Bill Clinton is one of his friends."

The two men seldom make joint appearances any longer, and Clinton is not actively campaigning for Gore at the moment. But it would not surprise Bill Bradley's campaign if Clinton hit the road for Gore in the weeks to come, in advance of primaries in the South and in California.

In 1988, Vice President George Bush ran his presidential campaign, in effect, as if he were campaigning for Ronald Reagan's third term.

"But we'll never hear Gore talking about the continuation of the Clinton legacy," predicts Daniel Casse, a speechwriter who has done work for George W. Bush's campaign.

'Campaign fatigue' fading

At the same time, however, Casse and a growing number of analysts in both parties believe that "Clinton fatigue" may be fading as a factor in the election.

"There are certain types of elections that are characterized as a repudiation of the outgoing administration. I don't think that you'll see any of that this year for the obvious reasons that the economy is going well and voters have gotten tired of the attacks on Clinton," he said.

"Clinton, to my surprise, is marginal to this election. I think he will figure not at all."

California pollster Paul Maslin, a Democrat, also thinks Clinton could prove to be only a fairly minor factor in the end.

Looking forward, not back

"While it sounds trite, it is an election cast into the future. The Democratic argument is: 'Look what we've done. Stick with us. Don't risk it with them.' The Republican argument is: 'Well, progress is fine, and we want it to continue, but we can get rid of those excesses from a moral standpoint'," he says.

Maslin, a former Gore adviser, calls Clinton "a slight drag on Gore," pointing to a recent poll in

New Hampshire that showed roughly one-third of Democrats with an unfavorable view of the president.

As the sole Democrat challenging Gore, Bradley is the obvious beneficiary of anti-Clinton sentiment within the party.

But his effort to make the most of those votes is greatly complicated by the fact that most Democrats seem to still like the president. To win the nomination, in other words, the former New Jersey senator must also peel away the votes of Clinton supporters from the vice president.

For that reason, as well as his longstanding aversion to attack politics, Bradley has pulled his punches against Gore and has been almost as reluctant as the vice president to utter Clinton's name.

'Washington bunker'

Last week, in perhaps his strongest efforts to tie Gore to Clinton's personal and political shortcomings, he accused the vice president of hunkering down in "the Washington bunker" and again blamed Clinton's "lies" for undermining the public's faith in politicians and government.

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