By Ceci Connolly
SEATTLE, Sept. 13 All of Earth, it may seem, is buzzing about the sex scandal enveloping President Clinton's White House, surfing the Internet for salacious details, arguing in coffee shops over the fine points of perjury and pondering where private life ends and public morality begins.
But on tranquil Planet Gore, the sun is shining, the salmon are running and all lanes on the information superhighway lead to 2000.
For six years, Bill Clinton and Al Gore have been bragging about their uniquely close partnership running the nation. But as the president battles for political survival in Washington, D.C., his steady Number Two is visiting the other Washington, serenely following a blueprint charted months before Monica S. Lewinsky threatened to turn the political world upside down.
"Business as usual," young staff members chirp, repeating the unofficial motto here on Planet Gore. The strategy is to largely ignore the Clinton sex scandal and project a vice president hard at work. While Gore has stated he is supporting his embattled friend and boss, he also makes clear he has his own agenda. This weekend, he has jammed everything from a 5K run to an intimate dinner with supporters of his political action committee into a hectic two days in the Pacific Northwest.
By day, the vice president trumpeted light rail, christened a new port and convened a round table on coastal salmon restoration all part of what Gore labels the "livability movement." By night, he raised thousands of dollars for the next generation of Democratic leaders, politicians who could well be his foot soldiers in the presidential campaign of 2000.
"For six years, we've been loyal to the president and focused on issues of interest to the vice president, and we're going to continue with that template," said one aide traveling with Gore. "We're hitting all three levels: policy, in terms of the vision stuff, politics for the locals and delivering things for the state."
Yet in the crowds he addressed, in the hotel bars and along the streets, the chatter was about Clinton and the lurid details of his extramarital affair.
"We're consumed with it," said Phyllis Smith, an elderly Vancouver woman who owns an engineering firm. "I called my friend this morning to ask if she was watching the opera [on television.] She said, 'Are you kidding? I'm watching CNN.'"
One sign along Gore's motorcade route noted: "Impeach Clinton Now." Another, obviously aware of Gore's high-tech profile, read: "Delete White House Porn on the Internet."
Even other Democratic candidates felt compelled to speak publicly on the Clinton imbroglio. Saturday evening, at a boisterous rally in Vancouver, House candidate Brian Baird used the tale of explorers Lewis and Clark to address the controversy Smith and everyone else in the Pearson Air Museum was talking about.
"These are not easy times in our nation and these are not easy times for this administration," said Baird, who appeared well-positioned to win the seat of Rep. Linda Smith (R), who is running for the Senate. "But no matter what, we will proceed on.
"It's time to proceed in a more positive direction," continued Baird to cheers. "It's time to focus on things that matter."
When it was his turn to speak, Gore made only an oblique reference to the scandal, using language he has employed before on the campaign trail: "He is my friend and he is our president. And let me tell you, his policies have been good for the United States of America and good for working families."
Gore did give one brief, carefully crafted statement for the cameras Saturday morning, saying that the Starr report does not offer evidence for "overturning the judgment of the American people."
But it was a feed-the-beast statement served up to an unusually large press contingent trailing the man who could could achieve his goal of the presidency sooner than he dreamed possible. And Gore has been unusually inaccessible, refusing to answer questions after he delivered his sound bite and abandoning his standard practice of wandering to the back of Air Force Two for a chat with reporters.
These days, Gore appears to be a beacon of calm in a storm-tossed administration.
"He seems totally upbeat," said one political adviser who spent time with Gore last week. "When he's confronted with a difficult situation, he really rises to the occasion."
Another supporter, who attended two dinners for Gore's Leadership '98 PAC last week, said the vice president finessed a few questions on the controversy and spent much of the night discussing politics and issues such as funding for the International Monetary Fund and electric rates.
Many of the people who saw Gore this weekend said they were pleased to discover he is not bogged down in the controversy.
"We rarely see anyone at the federal level take a position on planning," said Douglas Hardy, a 35-year-old planner who brought his wife and son to Gore's "listening session" on urban sprawl Saturday.
"The potential situation has really changed," said graphic designer Shirley Morgan. "Who knows what's going to happen to Clinton? It could be Gore."
Speculating that Gore may land in the presidency sooner than anyone thought, many wonder about his character now that Clinton's has been called into question.
"For us to get a better idea of his moral stature, it would be good for him to tell us where he stands," said Phyllis Smith at the museum. "He would be well-advised to say what his moral values are."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company