Being vice president is a little bit like being lieutenant governor. You spend a lot of time answering questions about when you will run officially for either president or governor. My all-time favorite lieutenant governor was Phil Sorenson, a Nebraska Democrat whose future in the too-often self-serious business of politics may have been hobbled by his wonderfully self-deprecating wit.

Asked endlessly when he would announce his gubernatorial candidacy, Sorenson quipped, "I have no plans beyond my present stepping stone." Vice President Al Gore is not being coy. He admits to plans beyond his present stepping stone. He also has important advantages, including being co-captain of an administration under which the deficit has been conquered and national unemployment is at its lowest in a quarter century, and when better than three out of four jobs created in the G-7 countries -- Japan, England, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and the United States -- have been produced in his country.

Gore also has the committed backing and all-out support of the captain of the administration, President Clinton. Clinton's personal rating among his fellow Democrats, according to December's Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll, is 82 percent favorable and 7 percent unfavorable. Because the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination will be decided by Democrats in primaries and caucuses, the strong backing of such a popular president is an enormously formidable asset.

How committed is Clinton to Gore? Well, during the last session of Congress, House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), a likely Gore foe for the nomination, traveled to Rhode Island where he was introduced at an event by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who extolled the Gephardt virtues that would make the Missourian a great president.

The following week, the story goes, Kennedy's father, the senior senator from Massachusetts, was at the White House for a legislative meeting with Clinton. At the end of the meeting, the president got Sen. Kennedy aside and pressed him, "What's this about Patrick endorsing Gephardt?" Clinton is committed to Gore.

But with that commitment comes the comparison of Gore to Clinton, which does not always work to the VP's advantage. Consider that for most of the last year, the nation has heard repeatedly of fund-raising irregularities, abuses and worse, reportedly committed by the 1996 Clinton campaign. There are tapes of White House coffees, manifests of White House sleep overs and a large cast of more-than-questionable characters (with many of whom the president was on an easy, first-name basis), who have fled to jurisdictions with which the United States does not have extradition treaties.

During this period, Clinton's popularity has climbed to its highest point in more than 4 1/2 years. Contrast this with the earnest Gore, who, you can be sure, always used the revolving door and never once ripped off the mattress tag as prohibited by federal law.

Barely three days of stories about a fund-raiser attended by the vice president at a Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., and the Gore polling numbers head south big time. You get the feeling that if Bill Clinton drove a convertible with the top down through a car wash, Al Gore would get wet.

Of even greater concern to Gore and all Democrats must be the contradictory messages they regularly receive from American voters, who by margins of frequently better than three to one declare, "We are spending too little money on education, on health and on the environment."

"Was the government spending too little on the poor last year? By 55 percent to 19 percent, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago reported, yes, Americans believe the government was spending too little to reduce poverty. Yet, according to Tom W. Smith, who conducted that poll for the NORC, two out of three "think taxes on the middle class are too high, and 68 percent declare that their own federal income tax is too high."

This is the dilemma. American voters, having been told by too many elected officeholders that there is both a free lunch and an open bar, want quality public education for their children, quality health care for their parents, quality air and quality water for everybody, along with excellent public safety. They want all of these things. They just don't want to pay for them. That, more than any stepping-stone problem, could be the Democrats' real stumbling block in 2000.