IN ANNOUNCING his candidacy for president yesterday, Vice President Gore spent a certain amount of time explaining who he is not as well as who he is. He is not Bill Clinton; that may have been the most important distinction that he sought to draw. Mr. Gore can hardly be said to have repudiated his patron, and he absolutely swaddled himself in the policies and economic and other achievements of the administration, in which he has played a heftier role than has typically been true of vice presidents in the past.

Yet he also was careful to say, as he is entitled to do, "I served my nation proudly in Vietnam," and "with your help, I will take my own values of faith and family to the presidency, to build an America that is not only better off but better."

He is not a hothouse Democrat, either -- not, at any rate, on such issues as crime, welfare, cultural license and national defense, on which Democrats used to be thought vulnerable. That was perhaps Distinction No. 2. President Clinton has gone to great lengths -- sometimes abandoning supposed principle -- to reposition and inoculate the party on these issues. Mr. Gore plainly welcomes the shelter. He managed in the course of yesterday's announcement to: note that he favors the death penalty; credit the administration with the recent decline in the welfare rolls; declare that parents should be given "the ability to protect their children from the marketing of cruelty and degradation"; endorse the use of "faith-based organizations" to help solve social problems; promise as government reinventor to "search out every last dime of waste and bureaucratic excess"; and affirm that he has "always been for a strong defense, above politics."

Yet no one should confuse him, either, with a member of the other party -- Distinction No. 3. He favors an increase in the minimum wage and a Medicare drug benefit, opposes privatization of Social Security, would expand the Family Leave Act, "will stand up for a woman's right to choose," wants stronger gun laws, will not "cut back" on environmental protection, etc.

Many of those are positions that we, too, favor, and to say that Mr. Gore recited them is to mock neither them nor him. The announcement left all manner of blanks to be filled in, as announcements always do. There's a long -- very long -- campaign ahead in which all the candidates will become better defined, not just Mr. Gore but his rival for the Democratic nomination, Bill Bradley, and the more numerous candidates on the Republican side as well.

Mr. Gore's conventional announcement contained no surprises; nor did he seriously challenge the country in any particular respect. It's hard to do that while at the same time celebrating the successes of the past seven years, and that constraint may help to define Mr. Gore's campaign.