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Gore Steps Into More Active Role as Clinton's Chief Defender

Gore & Clinton President Clinton and the first lady watch Vice President Gore speak during their post-impeachment White House appearance. (Rick Bowmer — The Washington Post)

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  • By Terry M. Neal and David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, December 23, 1998; Page A04

    Vice President Gore has emerged as President Clinton's chief defender in public and behind the scenes, ratcheting up rhetorical attacks on the GOP and taking the lead in making personal appeals to members of Congress, past presidents and other influential politicians.

    Instead of distancing himself from a president whose personal reputation has suffered grave damage in the biggest political crisis in a generation, Gore has latched himself closer than ever to Clinton. Gore's stepped-up efforts have come at a time when first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has lowered her profile and restrained her public comments in defense of her husband.

    One of Gore's strongest statements came Saturday at the White House, just hours after the House voted to impeach the president. The vice president alternately echoed the first lady's call a day earlier for national reconciliation and excoriated the Republican Congress for "excessive partisanship."

    "What happened as a result does a great disservice to a man I believe will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents," Gore said, a phalanx of Democratic House members cheering behind him.

    Despite polls that show most voters dislike Clinton and question his character, political observers -- including many Republicans -- said Gore has handled himself well and that it was unlikely he would suffer in a 2000 presidential bid because of his close association with Clinton. The public's continued high approval of Clinton's job performance and anger at GOP efforts to impeach him has cushioned Gore's political risks and perhaps even enhanced his image.

    "Who would you want as president, Al Gore or George Stephanopoulos?" asked Michigan Democratic National Committeeman Joel Ferguson, who ran Jesse L. Jackson's presidential campaign in 1988. "You'd want someone loyal. Al Gore is loyal from conviction."

    Tony Quinn, a Republican consultant from California, said Gore is politically safe as long as he doesn't fight lesser forms of punishment, such as censure. "Bill Clinton is pretty popular in California, and this state has to be the fulcrum for Gore's campaign," Quinn said. "The most anti-Clinton conservatives have no animus toward Gore that I can see."

    Throughout most of the year, Gore spoke infrequently about the Clinton scandal as he kept a hectic travel schedule and tried to stay on message with his take on the global economy, environment and technology. When he did speak, it was usually to say that he believed his "friend" and was proud to work with him.

    On Aug. 17, when Clinton acknowledged on national television that he had misled the nation about his relationship with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, Gore was vacationing in Hawaii, where he issued a statement that said in part that he was "proud" of Clinton.

    Since then -- and especially in the weeks before the November election -- he has grown increasingly bold in his denunciations of the GOP Congress, integrating his defense of Clinton regularly into speeches and even borrowing lines that sound like they were written by Jackson: "All they [the Republicans] want to do is investigate. We want to legislate," he said on more than one occasion.

    If Gore, who has not announced his candidacy for 2000, runs any risk, it is that Clinton's popularity could suddenly slide, several observers said this week.

    "Gore came out in Hawaii and said he was 'proud' of Bill Clinton," said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. "Well, he was one of four people in America who were proud. I think he simply goes too far with that kind of thing."

    Gore aides said he also has taken an active behind-the-scenes role, calling dozens of moderate House Democrats to shore up support for Clinton. He enlisted support from former presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, who on Monday wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times outlining a plan to expedite the Senate trial and conclude with a censure of Clinton.

    "You're never going to see him back away," a Gore aide said of the vice president yesterday. "The reason he's becoming more vehement is that the stakes have increased, and it warrants him stepping up more."

    Gore's course of action is almost directly opposite that chosen by then-Vice President Ford as the impeachment net drew tighter around Richard M. Nixon. Appointed by Nixon after the resignation of disgraced Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, Ford affirmed his loyalty to Nixon during his House and Senate confirmation hearings in November 1973, when impeachment investigations already were underway in the House Judiciary Committee.

    "The president of the United States has been my friend," he said. "He has always been truthful to me." But in answer to other questions, Ford stressed that honesty was vital to the presidency and cooperation with Congress essential.

    Sworn into office Dec. 6, Ford quickly opened a breach with Nixon. As recounted by James Cannon, a Ford aide, in his book "Time and Chance," the new vice president suggested in his first television interview that Nixon negotiate a compromise with Congress rather than continue to withhold White House tapes and documents Watergate investigators were seeking. "After that," Ford said, "there was a chill in my relations." Cannon writes, "Ford resolved to stay out of Nixon's battles with Congress and the courts -- as best he could."

    But New Hampshire Republican National Committeeman Tom Rath said Gore's situation is "not at all like Ford's, who was appointed and had served only a short time. Gore's future is tied much more closely to Clinton than Ford's was to Nixon. What he is doing is good politics for him. It reinforces his great advantage. . . . It makes his nomination even more inevitable. For any Democrat to run against him now is to run against Clinton."

    Staff writer Ceci Connolly and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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