WASHINGTON - Vice President Al Gore's decision to ask President Clinton to take to the stump for him in the final weeks of the presidential campaign may be seen as a sign of weakness after Mr. Gore's repeated affirmation that he is running "as my own man." But with his race against Gov. George W. Bush apparently heading for a photo finish, he would have been foolish to do otherwise.
Mr. Gore's conspicuously aloof posture toward the man under whom he has served for nearly eight years was beginning to become a negative story in itself. Reports of ill feeling between the Gore campaign and the White House culminated in a long page-one story in the New York Times Friday that described Mr. Clinton as "both hurt by the personal rebuff and bewildered as to why his political heir won't come to him for the advice he is itching to give."
As Mr. Gore was reporting on NBC's "Today" show that "President Clinton is my friend; he is helping out, and I welcome him," Mr. Clinton was already scheduled to hit the campaign trail over the weekend, for his wife and Democratic congressional candidates in New York, a state considered safe for Mr. Gore. From now until Nov. 7, he is expected to focus more on battleground states in the Gore-Bush fight, helping his vice president (and his own legacy) by trumpeting the achievements of the Clinton-Gore administration to invigorate the Democratic base and drive up party turnout.
Ever since Mr. Gore's nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, he has kept his distance from Mr. Clinton and has rarely mentioned him. Beyond his obvious determination to assume the leadership mantle of the party, he has sought to stay out of the shadow of the Clinton sex-and-lies scandal that brought the president's impeachment.
Reminded in an ABC News interview after his third debate with Mr. Bush in St. Louis that the impeachment issue had never come up, the vice president soberly commented: "Interesting. I think people have long since told the media this [election] is about the future."
So focused has Mr. Gore been on making it so that he has repeatedly told audiences that he doesn't expect or want to be elected president as a reward for the achievements of the past eight years. This attitude has been seen at the White House clearly not only as disappointing but as politically stupid.
Although Mr. Gore has indeed boasted about the economic prosperity of the Clinton-Gore years and the low unemployment, inflation and crime rates achieved, many in the party say there is nobody who can sell the record like Mr. Clinton.
His special relationship with minority constituencies, especially African-Americans, produced prodigious turnouts in his 1992 and 1996 election victories. Such turnouts could spell the difference between Mr. Gore's winning or losing in key battleground states across the nation's industrial belt from Pennsylvania to southern Wisconsin, where Mr. Gore needs a lion's share of the electoral votes to counter Mr. Bush's strength in the South, Plains and Rocky Mountain states.
Apparently Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton will not make joint appearances, at least at the start, and the rationale is that more ground can be covered by stumping separately.
But such an approach is a commentary on how the one-time charismatic "Bill and Al's Excellent Adventure" of 1992, when their palsy-walsy road team delighted audiences and each other, has been diminished by Mr. Clinton's personal misconduct in office and the Gore strategists' concern about their man getting too close to him.
Among those urging Mr. Clinton's vigorous involvement in the Gore campaign as salesman of the past eight years' achievements has been Paul Maslin, the California-based Democratic pollster. Speaking before Mr. Gore's call for Mr. Clinton to join the fray, Mr. Maslin said voters had long since made up their minds about how they felt about the impeachment and "there's no one better at energizing the base than Bill Clinton. I say turn him loose."
With barely more than two weeks until Election Day, Mr. Clinton's riding in like the Lone Ranger could provide the wake-up call Mr. Gore needs with somnambulent Democrats. It may make Mr. Gore look less "my own man," but the name of the game is winning.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.