Vice President Gore, determined to win the presidency on his own, said yesterday he may tell President Clinton that he does not want his help on the campaign trail.
"I haven't made a decision yet," Gore said in a lengthy interview at The Washington Post. "I may do that."
Drawing a parallel with his first race for the House in 1976, when he asked his father, the late senator, not to speak on his behalf, Gore said running for the White House is a "very personal quest. . . . For me to be successful, I have to have a personal connection and line of communication with the American people."
The vice president's ambivalence toward Clinton -- the man once believed to be his secret weapon in 2000 -- underscored how dramatically the campaign dynamic has shifted this year and how uncertain Gore's own prospects are.
In a midday session with Washington Post reporters and editors, the vice president spoke at length about a wide range of issues, from foreign policy to his campaign agenda to the costly mistakes in Vietnam.
He demeaned his Democratic challenger, Bill Bradley, for suggesting that his was a "left-of-center, insurgent" bid for the White House, suggesting that the more accurate description of Bradley's 18-year Senate record would be "cautious moderate."
And he lashed out at Gov. George W. Bush on two favorite subjects -- nuclear proliferation and the environment -- saying the Republican front-runner showed "poor judgment" in opposing the ratification of the nuclear test ban treaty that failed in the Senate this week, and that he has not done enough to protect Texans from industrial pollution.
After a season of setbacks, Gore is working furiously to rescue a nomination that once seemed inevitable. Yesterday, he asserted that changing his personal style, moving his campaign headquarters to Nashville and slashing his staff in half have helped him regain momentum.
"The feeling of the campaign is different," said Gore, dressed in one of his crisp, new three-button suits. "If you don't feel it yet, you will."
During the luncheon interview and in a lengthy hand-shaking session in the newsroom afterward, Gore for the most part displayed the looser, more relaxed side of himself that few Americans get to see. Only a few times did he revert to pat slogans, such as when he summed up the central theme of his campaign with the phrase "change that works for working families." And while generally candid, he at times avoided direct answers to questions, particularly about his relationship with Clinton and the degree to which he relies on pollsters before making policy decisions.
Perhaps his most reflective, and lengthy, comments came on the lessons of Vietnam, a war he opposed as a student at Harvard University but nevertheless volunteered to serve in.
"Fifty-three thousand Americans lost their lives for what?" said the 51-year-old Gore. "For what?"
As he has begun doing on the campaign trail, Gore described how the war and the rude homecoming that greeted many Vietnam veterans disillusioned him on politics and public service.
"I was against the war, and after serving there, I didn't change that view, but it became a much more complex picture," he said, describing friendships he made with some Vietnamese "who were genuinely terrified of losing their freedom under communism. That shouldn't sound surprising, but it did not fit in with the cartoon image that the antiwar protesters had."
Asked when the proper time would have been to end the war, he replied: "Before it started."
On the Korean War, Gore said: "I wouldn't label it a mistake, but I think that there were decisions during the course of that war that were questionable."
As president, Gore said he would be willing to consider changes to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty restricting missile deployment and even abandoning the treaty if the United States was seriously threatened by a missile attack from a "rogue" nation.
Gore, who spoke emotionally in 1996 of his sister's unsuccessful battle with lung cancer, also defended his decision to hire a pollster and media strategist with extensive ties to the tobacco industry.
"Both of them work for me now, and both of them have severed any ties with" cigarette makers, he said of Harrison Hickman and Carter Eskew. "Whatever [their] views are on tobacco have absolutely no effect whatsoever on my views. I'm supporting the most vigorous anti-smoking campaign that's ever been proposed."
When the discussion shifted to Wednesday's defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Gore became animated, recounting how he sat in his hotel room that night scribbling a campaign commercial on the vote.
But Gore's eagerness to seize the issue for his own campaign renewed frictions within the White House where Clinton advisers, most notably Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, were angered by the vice president's unilateral decision to produce a political ad without alerting the White House.
Despite Gore's desire to forge his own identity on the campaign trail, even he acknowledged that Clinton is already injecting himself in the 2000 contest, wooing major donors and putting in plugs for Gore at every turn.
"I understand the disappointment and anger people felt with the president; I felt it, too," Gore said, adding that Clinton has done a "superb" job. "In this campaign, the American people want to look at who can best lead them in the future. I don't think they want to look at the past."