Gore Seeks Light in Clinton Shadow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 19, 1999; Page A01
After a month of missteps and occasional friction between Vice President Gore's campaign and the Clinton White House, the two camps are settling on a strategy designed to take full advantage of the president's political skills while minimizing the drag that his tainted image might place on Gore's presidential hopes, according to administration and Democratic officials.
The strategy calls for Clinton to play to his strengths -- raising money, energizing Democratic core constituencies and touting the nation's robust economy -- while holding down the number of joint appearances, in which the president and his speaking talents tend to overshadow Gore.
Clinton also will be encouraged to poke fun at leading Republican candidate Gov. George W. Bush and his platform, and to endorse some of Gore's initiatives. The president did just that in a Baltimore speech last week, which pleased the vice president's campaign.
Campaign and administration sources say the new approach is intended to calm tensions between the two men, which Gore precipitated in a series of interviews last month in which he tried to distance himself from Clinton over the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. Some Democrats felt Gore overdid it, and Clinton friends described the president as miffed, although he denied it publicly.
Two political realities underlie the emerging strategy. After seven years as a loyal vice president, Gore can't credibly disassociate himself from Clinton, so he might as well take advantage of the union's benefits and hope the drawbacks don't sink him.
And Clinton, despite the sex scandal and impeachment ordeal, remains perhaps the most gifted politician of his generation, able to draw big crowds and big contributions -- talents Gore can't afford to dismiss.
"There's been reams and reams written about Clinton and the burdens of Clinton, but very little has been said about the flip side, which is his capacity to help raise money to compete with the mint down in Austin," Chicago Democratic consultant David Axelrod said in reference to Bush's prodigious fund-raising.
"The other [benefit] is his ability to cut through issues in a skillful way," said Axelrod, an informal Gore adviser. "Even his detractors would admit he is one of the great political talents of our time."
Clinton will apply those talents at least five times on Gore's behalf in the coming month, holding four fund-raisers in Washington and one in Little Rock, the White House announced last week. More are expected, Gore aides said.
And the president can share the campaign duties as Gore attempts to simultaneously win the Democratic nomination and target Bush, said former White House press secretary Mike McCurry. "The president can help hold the base while Gore tries to reach out to the centrist general election voters," he said.
The Gore campaign envisions "a one-two punch," in which the two men work in tandem but in different venues.
While Gore needs to "go out there in his own words, making his case," said one aide, "one of the things the president can do to help us best is to keep the economy on track and continually draw public attention to it."
He said the Gore camp also hopes Clinton will continue to use his rhetorical light touch to jab the opposition and to reinforce the vice president's message.
Gore aides feel Clinton did exactly that last week in Baltimore, when he addressed a gathering of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
In a riff aired extensively on the nightly news, the president began with a deadpan satire of Bush's campaign mantra of "compassionate conservatism." Then he praised Gore's new crime-control agenda, specifically endorsing the vice president's call to license handgun owners. Previously, Clinton had praised that goal but called it impractical.
"I thought the vice president put some great ideas forward," Clinton told the audience. "So far, he's the only person who's actually said what he would do if the people gave him the job."
White House officials say Clinton doesn't clear his prepared remarks with Gore advisers, but he does follow the vice president's campaign closely and knows how to underscore Gore's key themes.
A top Gore adviser said Clinton's staff was told last week that the vice president wanted to draw a contrast with Bush on gun control.
"They were very, very aware of that strategy" when Clinton went to Baltimore, where Bush also happened to be, said the Gore aide. "It was not lost on them that George Bush was in the same [media] market as they were."
Administration officials said the White House factions are renewing efforts to coordinate three political operations with distinct missions: the Clinton presidency, the Gore campaign and the New York Senate campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"The president wants to understand what the vice president is doing as a candidate -- and I'm sure it's the same for the first lady -- and then how he can be helpful to them," said one Gore aide.
Gore supporters acknowledge that the new strategy can't fully immunize their candidate from a phenomenon, dubbed "Clinton fatigue," in which many Americans say they are weary of the controversies that have dogged the administration and want the whole crowd removed.
Pew Research Center pollster Andrew Kohut, among the first to identify the trend, said the public seems to judge Gore more on "his personal ties to Clinton" than on the president's job performance. That hurts Gore, he said, because Clinton consistently gets higher marks for his job performance than for his character.
"I think the vice president is in a difficult position because on the one hand, he seems to be the recipient of people's frustration and their being tired of Clinton. But on the other hand," Kohut said, when Gore joins Clinton for events that highlight the administration's accomplishments, "he is often personally eclipsed by Clinton in these types of venues."
Nowhere was that more evident than at a joint appearance in south Texas on May 25. Clinton's crisp speech on empowerment zones made Gore's droning follow-up seem all the more leaden, an experience that pained the vice president's staff.
Clinton and Gore will share some stages between now and November 2000, aides say, but the formats will be carefully chosen.
"Just as a matter of pure logistics," a Gore staff member said, "we're not in town very much."
While Gore may limit his joint appearances with Clinton, political analysts say, there's no point in trying to divorce himself from the president because he's too closely associated with him -- especially in light of Gore's fierce loyalty during last year's impeachment battle.
"It'll never work, because he's still the vice president," said Republican pollster Robert Teeter, who worked for Bush's father when the then-vice president was running for the top job.
Moreover, Teeter said about Gore, "every time the president goes out and campaigns for him, it makes him look more like Junior."
But whatever Gore's feelings about the taint of Clinton's scandals, Teeter said, Gore should fully tap the president's fund-raising abilities. "Oh yeah," he said, "don't ever give that one up."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company