In the picture painted by the press, Vice President Gore's White House campaign is hardly off to a great start.

Interviewers have pressed him on his view of President Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. Commentators have ridiculed his shouted oratory, with the Chicago Tribune's James Warren likening him to a "Baptist minister on amphetamines." And no report on Gore is complete without noting the early horse-race polls that show him trailing Texas Gov. George W. Bush by double-digit margins.

"You're on the defense immediately," said Lorraine Voles, Gore's former communications director, citing a recent round of interviews about her ex-boss. " `Why is he doing so poorly? Why is he so much more stiff than Bush? Why did Bush have such a great week?' God, it's 17 months away. Can we at least have part of the campaign before you write him off?"

For the moment, the harsh coverage and punditry about Gore threaten to become a self-fulfilling process, magnifying his mistakes and adding to the perception of a campaign in trouble. But Gore also comes to the 2000 race with considerable baggage, as a prominent member of a controversial administration, a longtime denizen of the Beltway establishment and a figure so unexciting that he jokes about his own stiffness.

But there is also a well-established tendency in journalism to report more positively on a candidate leading in the polls, at least as long as his numbers remain high. By that standard, Bush is cruising and Gore is stumbling.

Even a Republican consultant, Jay Severin, sees a stark contrast in the coverage of Gore and Bush. "The cumulative impression left by the major media in the last 10 days is that Gore is off to a halting, awkward start," said Severin, an MSNBC commentator. "What we've heard about Gore is his lackluster speaking ability, his woodenness, his inability to connect. The general coverage of Bush has been how much money he has, his establishment political support, how big a machine he has, how high expectations are."

The Gore camp shrugs off the disparity. "It goes with the territory," said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane. "When you run for president, people are going to ask you very tough questions." When pressed about Clinton and Lewinsky, Lehane said that Gore "took inside fastballs, ducked them and hit the next pitch."

The tone of the early interviews is revealing. While the vice president has stressed specifics, such as improving education and health care for the elderly and curbing suburban sprawl, the media have pursued other subjects.

On ABC's "20/20," Diane Sawyer asked about the perception of Gore as boring, whether Hillary Rodham Clinton was "bigfooting" him by running for the Senate, and about his defense of the president during the impeachment process. Gore said that Clinton's behavior with Lewinsky was "inexcusable."

CBS's Bob Schieffer also pressed the vice president about backing his boss, saying at one point: "But he turned out to be a liar."

NBC's Claire Shipman asked: "Are you worried that you will pay the ultimate price for Bill Clinton's impeachment?"

Roger Simon, chief political writer for U.S. News & World Report, defended the focus on Lewinsky: "It's still the story that has shaped our time. We want to hear him say what a terrible reprobate the president was, while defending his record. We're going to make him jump through the hoops. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

Schieffer said he was struck by how Gore's response to the Lewinsky question on three network shows "was, almost to the comma, the very same answer."

"He's an acquaintance," Schieffer said of Gore. "I've seen him in various settings over the last 10 or 15 years, and he can be very funny. But somehow when that light goes on you see a different Gore and he comes off a little wooden."

Simon and others say it is easier for journalists to criticize Gore because he is part of a 6 1/2-year-old administration, while most are unfamiliar with the details of Bush's record in Texas. "We know more about Gore, and maybe that's part of it," said the Tribune's Warren. "We're sort of bored with Clinton, and many of us think Clinton's a moral scum, and probably subconsciously, at a minimum, we taint Gore by virtue of his association."

The vice president has also fared poorly among the media's theater critics. After Gore made his announcement speech in Carthage, Tenn., several commentators complained that his team had bungled the staging because supporters waving signs blocked the cameras' view of the candidate. And they gave Gore's performance a definite thumbs down. "The poor man is all but howling at the moon," wrote New York Times columnist Gail Collins. Time magazine's Margaret Carlson called him a "flailing, shouting person" on CNN's "Capital Gang."

Despite such criticism, Gore advisers say they are happy to have dealt with the more uncomfortable questions, such as those involving Lewinsky, at a time when few voters are paying attention to the 2000 race. "One of our goals last week was to pop the balloon," a Gore aide said.

The degree to which Gore is considered old hat was underscored by the New York Times, which ran the story of his presidential campaign announcement inside the paper, with a small picture of Gore at the bottom of Page 1. When Bush kicked off his campaign four days earlier, the Times treated it as front-page news.

In another sign of Gore's troubles, some reporters have given ample space to the AIDS protesters who have dogged his appearances, helping to drown out his message.

To be sure, Gore faces the built-in disadvantage of having labored in the No. 2 spot under an impeached president, while Bush is a fresh, non-Washington face. And Gore has long been tagged as a dull political performer, an image so indelible that, like Dan Quayle's spelling deficiency, it may be impossible to change.

While Gore, unlike Bush, has held no news conferences since his announcement, he has launched a charm offensive with selected journalists. Using his official residence as a base, Gore has chatted up reporters and columnists for such publications as the Boston Globe, New York Daily News, Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New Republic. And in an apparent attempt to soften his image, Gore and his wife Tipper spoke to The Washington Post about their relationship and appeared together on "Larry King Live."

Gore would surely look stronger if the media focused on his huge lead over Democratic rival Bill Bradley. Instead, Gore is constantly compared to Bush as if the primaries were a formality and the general election was under way.

"I don't know if he gets a tougher ride," Schieffer said, "but he is part of an administration whether he wants to be or not, the same way that Hubert Humphrey was part of the Johnson administration and George Bush tried to separate himself from Iran-contra. That's the downside of being vice president."

Gore's Answer

Vice President Gore's recent comments on President Clinton's behavior with Monica S. Lewinsky:

* On CBS: "If you've ever been disappointed in a friend and surprised by something they did and then gone through the task of putting it back together and rebuilding a working relationship and moving past it, then you know exactly what I went through."

* On NBC: "Well, if you've ever had a good friend who disappointed you and you went about rebuilding the relationship, you know pretty much what it was like for me."

* On ABC: "If you've ever had a friend who disappointed you and you worked with that person and you rebuilt the relationship and moved forward from the disappointment, that's exactly what that was like for me."