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Gore on the campaign trail in 1996.


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Inquiry Is N.H. Primary Concern

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 1997; Page A09

DOVER, N.H., Sept. 5—Among the posters on the classroom wall was one entitled "What Does Our President Do?" Sitting on a metal folding chair in front of the blackboard this morning was a man who would dearly like to find out first-hand, reading to 20 first-graders from a book called "The Wednesday Surprise."

The story was about a little girl who teaches her grandmother to read. But as Vice President Gore embarked on a daylong blitz of this critical political state today, he was still trying to recover from his own Wednesday surprise – the announcement two days ago that Attorney General Janet Reno is taking another look at whether he violated federal law by soliciting campaign gifts from his White House office.

Wherever he went today, Gore tried to talk about education and the economy, but the questions kept turning back to his fund-raising activities. Even as he spoke to students and business owners up here, his former deputy chief of staff was back in Washington testifying under oath to a Senate investigative panel.

"I'm confident that when the reviews are all complete, it'll be fully shown that what I did was legal and appropriate," Gore told an interviewer from WMUR television. "Of course, we're cooperating fully with the review. We provided every bit of information that has been requested and then some. And we went the extra step of making it all public. What this controversy shows again is the need for campaign finance reform."

That was the standard answer today, one so well scripted that Gore repeated it almost word for word to another local reporter later in the day. Instead of talking about the propriety and legality of his actions, Gore tried to shift attention to the larger issue of whether fund-raising laws are adequate. In the WMUR interview, he managed to use some variation of the phrase "campaign finance reform" 10 times in the space of five minutes – reminiscent of his repeated mantra of "no controlling legal authority" during a March news conference defending his actions.

This was Gore's second trip in 100 days to the state that hosts the first presidential primary in 2000, and he took full advantage of his status as a vice president running to succeed a popular boss.

He announced federal initiatives to improve New Hampshire airports and expand a women's business center, and on President Clinton's behalf he threatened a veto of GOP legislation that provides no money for the administration's literacy and educational standards proposals.

As he crossed the state, he could take heart from the response of some of those who turned out to hear him. While finding reports of his fund-raising unsettling, several residents said they were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – for now.

"I'm just sitting and waiting to see how all the facts come through," said Eileen Hertel, the computer coordinator at Woodman Park Elementary School where Gore made his first stop. "I don't have any opinion yet about whether he's quote-unquote guilty." But the notion of dialing for dollars from the White House disturbs her: "That's a pretty black-and-white thing for me. There are laws. You just don't solicit out of a government building."

Watching Gore leave the Delahaye Conference Center in Portsmouth, where he held a town meeting on small businesses, Carolyn Beaulieu, a 54-year-old accountant, seemed unconcerned, saying, "sometimes I think they're nitpicking." Her friend, schoolteacher Peggy Hanson, 52, unknowingly echoed Gore's it's-the-system defense. "Until they stop putting so much pressure on the politicians to raise money," she said, "I don't see that it's going to end."

Peter Hoe Burling, the state House Democratic leader who hosted a fund-raiser featuring Gore in Cornish this evening, dismissed the controversy as "a Washington story. . . . Al Gore is diminished not one bit."

But there was skepticism, particularly about Gore's claim that he did not know an April 1996 luncheon at a Buddhist temple in California was a Democratic fund-raiser. The fiercely conservative Union Leader of Manchester greeted him today with a mocking editorial headlined, " `I Didn't Know' – Is Al Gore Too Stupid To Be President?"

"It's bothersome," said Avis Bennett, 43, whose son Jordan welcomed Gore to the school in Dover. "It seems unbelievable that he did not know about it." Does that mean he was lying? "I think," she answered carefully, "he's politically not truthful."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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