Tipper Gore is happily showing a visitor her music collection, tucked away in the living room of the Tudor-style house her grandfather built in Arlington. There's a vintage copy of "Cheap Thrills," the 20-year-old "Beatles for Sale" album and some well-worn Springsteen. There's even a Grateful Dead record. "I love rock 'n' roll," she says. "I was one of the earliest Springsteen fans ... I played the drums in high school ... You're talking to someone who truly understands rock music ... We are liberal-minded people."

If it seems a little unusual that the 39-year-old wife of a presidential candidate is so eager to have her fondness for rock 'n' roll on the record, that's because Tipper Gore has found herself in a rather unusual political situation. For all the time Albert Gore has spent meticulously mapping his journey to the White House -- from Harvard to Vietnam, from the House to the Senate -- Tipper has ended up the better known of the two. Unfortunately for them, her fame hasn't always been cast in a positive light.

As she fought pornography and violent lyrics in rock music, critics painted her efforts as a form of censorship. And now, as the candidate anxiously tries to transform his Southern successes into his party's nomination, supporters and detractors alike can see Tipper's notoriety turning into a political liability -- at least among an important block of Democrats. "I told her to get all the exposure she can, so that she can be defanged," says Carter Eskew, a friend and media consultant who is not associated with any candidate.

For her part, Tipper Gore says her fight with the record industry is over, but she knows it will never be forgotten. She and her Parents Music Resource Center pressed record companies to affix labels on albums warning of questionable lyrics, and many agreed. She insists she was not advocating censorship and says people will ultimately realize that. Besides, she doesn't care to talk about the political ramifications.

Still, they are a little hard to ignore as the candidate faces the real possibility of resistance in delegate-rich California, where the entertainment industry is a powerful Democratic force. "How can I support a Democratic candidate whose wife sounds more like Jimmy Swaggart every day?" asks Danny Goldberg, head of Gold Mountain Records in Los Angeles and a party activist.

A few weeks ago, fliers screaming "JUST SAY NO TO TIPPER GORE" began showing up at Los Angeles record stores urging people to protest her speech tonight at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, which is sponsored by Pitzer College. She is asked about this, and for the first time during the 90-minute interview in her salmon-colored parlor, Tipper Gore stiffens.

"I'm certainly not going to be intimidated into not going ... because they plan to picket me with signs -- 'down with censorship,' " she says, sitting forward on the sofa. And then a little more forcefully: "They are trying to disrupt my free speech now, and get me to cancel my appearance."

And now standing up, she heads over to her record cabinet and pauses. And in one sentence it becomes clear what Tipper Gore is really all about -- and it's not music. It's Al.

"I am not going to be intimidated and threatened by some vigilante groups," she says, raising her voice a little, "groups who are out to politicize this issue and hurt my husband."

Tipper and Al Gore have always done an exquisitely choreographed two-step -- from their years in Nashville when he was a reporter and she a photographer, to their courting of political Washington. But for all their careful planning, friends say that the bitter reaction against her crusade truly caught them by surprise. Music magazines satirized her, and Frank Zappa had a ball portraying her as a bored, sex-starved housewife with nothing better to do than censor culture. He called her a "cultural terrorist."

"You have to understand they have been running for president for 10 years, gearing all their activities to that end," says one old friend, who asked to remain anonymous. "This came from left field."

"I'll tell you," says a college friend from Boston, Barbara McLaughlin, "I just don't even recognize the person I've been reading about. She's been painted as this ultraconservative ..."

Another friend from Tennessee, Lynne Edgerton, asks: "I mean, what do you do? Do you say, 'No, no, we really didn't mean this' and alienate a natural constituency base -- conservative family people. Or do you fight it to the end and alienate the liberals ... It has been a real slippery slope for them."

Relaxing in the home in which she grew up -- and where she now lives with her husband and four young children -- Gore concedes that she may have underestimated the intensity of the opposition. "But who were we?" she asks. "Concerned parents, and the PTA. Suddenly we were being thrown up against critics who had access to nightly shows ... They convinced people we wanted to ban music."

What Gore did have access to was the U.S. Senate, and the backing of some other well-connected women, such as Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker. Although Gore has always said her husband had reservations about her testifying in 1985 before a Senate committee of which he was a member, his position clearly afforded her access and media attention. "Some people even said we did it because of the campaign, when it was long before Al decided to run," she says.

The Gores' home echoes with the distant chatter of young children as she speaks. Built in 1938, the Arlington house was almost destroyed by fire in 1986, forcing the Gores to live with friends and family for nine months while it was being rebuilt. Today, there is no trace of the damage and the house is filled with tasteful antique mahogany pieces that Tipper purchased after the fire. There are several dozen family photos in pretty silver frames scattered about the room.

There is even a bit of self-deprecatory humor on display: a cartoon of Tipper Gore wearing a jacket with the caption: "Warning to the rock industry: This jacket contains GORE, which may be hazardous to record sales."

Despite the candidate's initial reservations, the couple decided they would stick it out when all hell broke loose. This is how they say they have always done things.

Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson (her mother had nicknamed her Tipper at birth) met Albert Gore Jr. on the night of young Gore's graduation from St. Albans high school in 1965. He was the senator's son, handsome and promising. She was the shy, blond junior from St. Agnes whose parents had caused her much sadness with their early divorce.

He phoned her the next day and asked for a date. She accepted, and for Tipper and Al, that was it.

That September he left for Harvard, and they wrote each other regularly. He invited her to Tennessee to visit his folks at Christmas. "She was the sweetest blond thing," recalls Pauline Gore. And by spring break, her grandmother was driving her from Arlington to Boston to see him. "We stayed at the Copley Plaza so I could visit Al and be chaperoned," says Tipper. "Sounds like ancient history, doesn't it?"

She followed him to Boston the next year ("I was invited!") and attended Garland Junior College. She eventually received her degree in psychology from Boston University in 1970 and they married that month. Meanwhile, he had enlisted in the Army after graduating from Harvard. Vietnam was on the horizon, and there was a question as to whether Al would go. But his father was an outspoken opponent of the war and up for reelection to the Senate. For Al, there was really little choice.

"We talked about him not going, but I really don't think he ever seriously considered it," Tipper Gore says. "His father's opponents would have made political hay out of it.

"Moving to Canada was an option -- but it was never a serious option and I would have known. We were going to have a life together and I don't remember thinking about moving to Canada," she says.

Al Gore did a six-month stint in Vietnam in early 1971 as an Army journalist before returning to Nashville to work for The Tennessean and attend law school. Post-Vietnam, friends say, there was a brief time when he hadn't quite clicked into his destiny, still believing he might have a career in journalism. But when he scrapped writing and law school to run successfully for the House in 1976, it was obvious where he was heading. Tipper Gore abandoned her own plans of becoming a clinical psychologist.

After that, there always seemed to be an aura around the Gores, a White House state of mind. Clearly, Al's career and life has always been Tipper's, and that has been politics. Their mutual ambition worked for them, because, as friends say, they are devoted to each other. "One day I was there and he called to say he was on his way home," recalls Carmala Walgren, a Washington friend and wife of Rep. Doug Walgren (D-Pa.). "She immediately combed her hair and put on lipstick. I said to her, 'Tipper, you still do this?' "

Today, Tipper Gore sits in on all her husband's senior staff and strategy meetings, and strongly encouraged his "Southern strategy." Even her friends seem to be geared toward politics.

Asked for the names of some friends who might talk about her, Gore's office offered the wives of several congressmen. When called, two of them said they liked her very much, but conceded they only knew her on a limited basis. Later, a few more names were provided. Another woman Gore's office named, who lives in New Hampshire, also spoke very well of her, but said she hadn't seen her in nearly a decade -- until the campaign first stopped in New Hampshire last fall.

When a reporter located another friend in Florida (who was not on the list), the friend said that she loved the Gores but wanted to make sure it was okay to talk. Two days later, the woman said that both Gores had phoned her and asked her not to speak to the reporter. A staff aide, who asked for anonymity, explained later: "They just couldn't be sure of what she would say."

When the Gores moved to Washington, Carmala Walgren says, Tipper was concerned that she would spend all her time attending teas, so she organized a group of wives and started something called the Congressional Wives Task Force. They met weekly, inviting experts to speak on issues such as nutrition, problems of the elderly, and violence on television.

The seeds were being sown for her music crusade. One reason Gore has always had an interest in children's issues goes back to her own troubled childhood. Her father left (she is still close to him) when she was 2, and she and her mother moved in with her grandparents. "I think it was also the reason I studied psychology ... It was painful. I had a great deal of love and happiness and support, but no matter what, I think when your parents divorce, and when you have to deal with two households, it is painful."

Her rock 'n' roll campaign began by accident. Gore says she was listening to Prince's "Purple Rain" album with her 11-year-old daughter Karenna in 1985 when the sexually explicit lyrics startled her. She teamed up with Susan Baker to form PMRC, which sought to warn parents about inappropriate music. In the fall of 1985, Gore and Baker testified, along with Zappa, before a Senate communications subcommittee -- and the fight began.

She is asked why parent and child can't discuss what's best for the child in the privacy of their own home. "How does the average working parent know which artist represents what?" she asks testily. "You're talking about a complex marketplace out there. Kids come in and say they want to go to a {heavy metal} Slayer concert. How do parents know who this group is versus a Whitney Houston or U2? That is a response that shows a lack of awareness of people's real lives today."

Friends of the Gores say they warned the couple early on that while her campaign would play well in the South -- and perhaps even in the general election -- the North and West could be problems in terms of support and fund raising. "I told her not to keep talking about this," recalls Carmala Walgren. " 'You don't want to be a Johnny One Note. People don't understand it.' And she was adamant. She believed people would eventually understand."

Last fall executives in the entertainment industry in L.A. met with the Gores to help clear up the dispute. The industry, known for its liberal leanings, has long been a source of critical campaign funds in presidential politics.

While news accounts of the meeting quoted the Gores as saying that the controversial hearings "sent the wrong message," the post-mortems indicated that not much headway was made. Patricia Duff Medavoy, a producer and political activist whose support was solicited by Gore but who is leaning toward Dukakis, says she had advised the campaign against focusing too much on this issue. "{Campaign manager} Fred Martin asked what I thought about it, and my advice was not to draw further attention ... to start focusing on something else," Medavoy says. "It makes it very difficult to sell Al Gore out here."

Medavoy, wife of Orion Pictures Executive Vice President Mike Medavoy, believes the opposition to Al Gore in California is concentrated within the music industry, "but it is so strong that it's affecting everyone else's thinking and it's going to be very problematic ... People in the entertainment industry just don't know very much about him, but what they do know they find very alarming."

"I'm telling you when you hear the name Gore here, the only thing you think of is his wife," says Robert Merlis, a vice president and spokesman for Warner Bros. Records. "She has created such a giant smoke screen around his campaign that no one has any inkling of his politics. I don't know if he can overcome the view people have of her -- which is that she is spinning her wheels and her crusade is far-fetched."

Darry Sragow, director of Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy's California Senate race and a Gore adviser, agrees. "There is no question that her stand causes very serious problems within the music business and with certain liberals on the west side of Los Angeles," he says. "The people involved may be a very small number but they are part of a so-called elite that plays a disproportionate role in the results."

Sragow says that contrary to some news reports, the campaign never entertained "watering down" her message -- but instead sought to clarify it. "We're attempting to try and make clear what her position is," he says, "and it is not for censorship."

Tipper Gore believes that message will prevail, and believes that the negative publicity has in fact dwindled. And as she campaigned through the South, she says, she noticed that voters and journalists alike asked her if she thought she had been misrepresented, which she views as a good sign. There has been some encouragement from parents, too. "One woman called me at Christmas and said, 'I want to thank you. I was buying four tapes for my 10-year-old son. I turned them over and two of them had labels on them ... I exchanged them.' "

She tries to sum up. "Look, I don't want to prevent people from buying records. I wish everyone would understand this ... What I'm saying is really a matter of free choice. If you have the proper information, you can make your own choice."

Just as she's finishing, a pint-size version of the candidate, Albert III, 5, skips into the room and perches on a nearby chair. He's told that he looks a lot like his dad. "Oh, yeah, I know," he says, "Only my hair is blond."

And then, after giving it a little more thought, he comes up to a visitor and says, "One more thing. Dad's head is a lot bigger!"