When a dozen environmentalists met with Vice President Gore last week, high on their list of questions was strip mining. But instead of providing information, the No. 2 man in government asked them for an update.
It was similar when Gore was asked by reporters about the clemency granted to imprisoned Puerto Rican nationalists. "I had zero involvement with that," said President Clinton's deputy.
For seven solid years, Al Gore bet his political future on being the "most involved vice president in history." But now with the first votes of the 2000 election just two months away, Gore is--to use one of his new favorite expressions--"dissing" the job that brought him within 18 paces of the Oval Office.
"Running for president of this country is far more important than being the best vice president I can possibly be," he says in a none-too-subtle declaration of independence.
From decisions as simple as wardrobe to matters as complicated as abortion, Gore is cutting his ties to Clinton. Part of the shift is evolution, Gore contends, noting: "I have to win this on my own." But Gore's abandonment of a role he fought so hard to carve out is a stark illustration of how much he fears his understudy role--and his ties to the impeached president--are harming his own presidential ambitions.
"He thinks about it almost every day," said one former aide, referring to Gore's frequent worrying about the Clinton impact. After months of feeling dispirited, Gore is now emboldened to shed his day job and the requisite loyalty that goes with it.
If he and the boss publicly disagree, "So be it," Gore declares.
Yet the split will require finesse not usually associated with the man best remembered for "no controlling legal authority." For even as Gore begins to make policy breaks with the Clinton administration, he is eager to share credit for its accomplishments and he expects to rely on the perks of incumbency to keep his political operation humming through the cash-starved spring. Gore advisers already have said he will use official government announcements and trips to keep a high profile and generate good will.
"It's a problem that goes back to Martin Van Buren," said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. "Sitting vice presidents have to have tremendous agility; you don't want to destroy the platform that allows you to make the reach [to the presidency], but you don't want to be bound to the platform."
From his very first meeting with Clinton in 1992, Gore has been keenly aware of the understudy trap called "vice presidentialitis." In return for helping Clinton win, the Tennessee senator negotiated a weekly lunch with the president, office space in the West Wing and a seat for his staff at the National Security Council.
As he began preparing for his own presidential campaign in late 1998, Gore settled on a Rose Garden-style strategy modeled after Clinton's 1996 victory. He would remain vice presidential, standing behind a lectern with the official seal making pronouncements on the latest good news from the federal government.
He surveyed flood damage in Tennessee, laid a wreath at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave, delivered $29 million in emergency relief to California and stood beside Clinton as the president greeted foreign dignitaries. And on every trip the vice president made, his staff distributed inch-thick briefing books itemizing "President Clinton and Vice President Gore's accomplishments" in a particular state.
"He envisioned a governing version of this campaign where he could 'VP' his way to the presidency," said one Gore ally, who expressed frustration that Gore for months refused to engage rival Democrat Bill Bradley.
Today, Gore spends virtually all of his time away from Washington, and has moved his headquarters to Nashville. When Gore describes the joy of hitting the campaign trail, he invokes the imagery of freed slaves, telling audiences he is "unshackled."
He skipped the last Cabinet meeting, takes daily shots at Bradley and has not eaten lunch with Clinton since Aug. 10. In family circles, the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal and resulting "Clinton fatigue" in the nation are known simply as "The Problem," said two people close to the Gores.
Earlier this month, Gore invited the Cabinet to his home to explain his new approach. He told the group he had "gotten into bad habits as vice president . . . had gotten too cautious because he wanted to always be seen as supporting administration goals," said one official who attended the session.
Publicly, Gore says the shift is all about speaking directly to voters.
"I started connecting with people who were willing to teach me about their dreams and hopes for the country," he said last week, campaigning on the West Coast. "And the easiest thing in the world for me is to give a spontaneous answer from my heart."
At times, Gore still displays the awkward formality that has given him a reputation for stiffness. But increasingly in recent weeks, he is more confident, more relaxed and much more willing to project his own personality.
"I've always thought the vice president would really shine once he got out from underneath the shadow of vice president," said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who campaigned with Gore last week. "He has been an exceptional vice president in part because he is an incredibly adept team player. But now the country is willing and eager for him to come forward and show his own flag."
Last week, Gore did just that, first touting the virtues of anti-trust laws to a skeptical group of Microsoft employees and later taking exception with Clinton's willingness to accept limits on abortion rights advocacy overseas in return for nearly $1 billion in dues to the United Nations. "I do not favor bargaining away any critical policy aspect of a woman's right to choose," Gore said.
Inslee applauded Gore's maneuvering as courageous and smart: "He picked the right time and the right place and the right issues."
But some supporters worry Gore has difficulty striking the proper balance between being his own man and reaping the benefits of Clinton's policy successes.
White House aides and other Clinton advisers say the president believes--as do many on his team--that Gore is blundering by seeming to run away from Clinton's record. They suggest that there is no escaping any political burdens brought on by his association with Clinton and the potential rewards can be realized only if he touts those achievements--and states convincingly how he can build on them.
"It's idiotic," said one Democratic strategist close to the White House. "He's got all the negatives no matter what; he might as well take advantage of the positives."
Even a top Gore strategist acknowledged it will be difficult next spring to wage a campaign through pseudo-official events after having spent the previous months trying to convince voters he is the former vice president.
The shift back to the initial Rose Garden approach "will certainly be more jarring," this person said.
But others in the Gore camp say the un-vice presidential approach is a question of timing--and now is the time to run for the top job. As his former political director Karen Skelton put it: "For everything there is a season; this is the vice president's winter as a warrior."
Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Vice President Gore is cutting ties.