Fresh off scaling Mount Rainier and a quick speech in Chicago, Vice President Gore swept into Arkansas today for his first joint campaign appearance with President Clinton.
"If everything was on the line and I had to pick one person . . . I would pick Al Gore," Clinton declared, "and so should you."
Two months ago, when he formally declared his run for the presidency, Gore went to great lengths to distance himself from Clinton's ethical baggage. But with the prospect of collecting $300,000, Gore eagerly flew to Clinton's home state tonight for the first of several fund-raisers together.
"For the last 6 1/2 years we have had a tremendous record of success thanks to Bill Clinton," Gore said.
Political observers and Gore's own strategists have debated for months whether public exhaustion with Clinton scandals would imperil his junior partner's White House prospects. But here in their native South, the two men left little doubt their futures are as entwined as their years in office together.
"An election is a job interview," Clinton effused in a strategy session with 170 black leaders. "He wants you to hire him."
Then, before their microphones were abruptly turned off by White House aides who deemed the meeting private, Gore chimed in: "I do."
Close to 600 people paid $500 each for roast beef sandwiches, wine and soft drinks. As Clinton and Gore entered the State House Convention Center, they paused before two blown-up photos of themselves from earlier days. Once on the stage, Gore, dressed in olive suit and cowboy boots, moved forward and waved as Clinton slipped back several feet.
"There is a world of difference between the policies and approaches and caring that would come in a Gore administration compared to a Republican administration making a right-wing U-turn," the vice president said after Clinton introduced him, giving him a big bear hug.
Next week, Clinton and Gore are scheduled to attend two intimate dinners in Washington with financial heavyweights such as Viacom's chief executive Sumner Redstone and recruits such as New Jersey Nets star Jayson Williams. Two more dinners are planned for mid-September. As of July 1, Gore had raised $17.5 million, and campaign officials predict he will easily hit the maximum $40 million primary budget.
Although Clinton endorsed his chosen heir more than a year ago, the partnership has been strained as the two prepare for futures apart.
"It's bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter," Arkansas Attorney General Mark Pryor said of the symbolic passing of the political torch that began here today.
When Clinton friend Skip Rutherford contemplates a presidential campaign with Gore on the ballot and Clinton a mere voter, he conjures up an image of the pair on a mountain.
"Al Gore is climbing up, and Bill Clinton's on the other side climbing down," said Rutherford, who helped organize tonight's gathering. "While Al Gore's in excellent shape, it's harder to climb that mountain than walk down it. I see a cartoon with Clinton looking down, saying, `The view's been very good up here.' "
Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Gore has no choice but to run with Clinton and hope the advantages outweigh what appears to be public fatigue with the administration.
"People are ready to have Bill Clinton exit. My guess it that costs Al Gore 10 points in the polls," Loomis said. "People may have put up with Clinton because he's charming. But Gore doesn't have that, so it might be easier for people to drop away from Gore."
Gore, for his part, has sent mixed signals. On the day last December that the House impeached Clinton, Gore predicted at a White House pep rally that Clinton would go down in history as "one of our greatest presidents." Yet on his announcement swing, he pointedly said he would bring "my own values and faith and family" to the Oval Office and told reporters "that awful year we went through" was "wasted time."
The president, meanwhile, has mused publicly about Gore's early campaign glitches and in private he has bridled at Gore's strategy of distancing.
But aides to both men say those tensions have dissipated. Clinton "appreciates the fact that Al didn't go out there and brag about what he's done or hasn't done," Gore campaign chairman Tony Coelho said last week. "He knows that it's now Al's to win or lose. Al has to go out there and communicate with the American people."
Before the fund-raiser, Clinton and Gore met with African American leaders from nine southern states, emulating a strategy Clinton used in 1991 to get his presidential effort off the ground.
"All of you helped me to be elected president with my friend and partner Al Gore," Clinton said before the sound was cut off. "We know it could not have happened without your support."
Tonight, Clinton said of Gore, "For a long time now, he's been at my back, and I intend to be at his."
This morning, Gore took aim at the GOP's $792 billion tax cut bill in a speech in Chicago, bringing the predominantly African American crowd of about 1,000 to its feet cheering loudly as he said the "risky Republican scheme" would result in another "trickle-down tragedy" as it did in the Reagan administration.
"This is a plan that offers too much to too few at the expense of many," Gore told the 28th national conference of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. "We must never go back."
It was the second of four appearances in a week before a minority audience for Gore, and he clearly intended to convince Jackson's coalition that he is as sure-footed on civil rights as his lone Democratic opponent, Bill Bradley, who spoke to the group on Wednesday. Like Bradley, Gore called for an end to racial profiling, the practice of singling out minorities for questioning when there is no evidence they have been involved in a crime.
Asserting that the average black family's wealth is only a tenth of that of white families, Gore promised he would work to close the "opportunity gap" between the races. "I see scenes across this land at a time of plenty that are not supposed to be this way," he said.
Staff writer William Claiborne in Chicago contributed to this report.