Vice President Gore said yesterday that President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military should be abandoned and vowed to "eliminate this unacceptable form of discrimination" if elected president.

Gore's statement represents a change from the position he expressed as recently as this weekend. On Friday, Gore said the "don't ask, don't tell" policy has not worked in practice but stopped short of calling for its elimination.

Yesterday, in his sharpest public break with the administration he has served for seven years, Gore said that "gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve their country without discrimination" and that he would "make those changes" as president.

But a spokesman for Gore's Democratic rival, Bill Bradley, noted pointedly that Bradley has been saying that for months, even as Gore has hewed closer to the administration line. "There's leadership, and then there's followership," Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser said.

Gore's comments underscore the increasing importance of the gay vote in Democratic Party politics. But while Gore's position may draw broad support among Democratic primary voters, it could open him to attacks in the general election.

Under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, military personnel are not supposed to be questioned about their sexual orientation but also cannot openly acknowledge their sexual orientation or participate in homosexual activities.

The policy is a political compromise crafted at the start of the administration, when Clinton found himself unable to fulfill a campaign pledge to lift the ban on gays in the military. But gay rights groups have complained that the policy in practice has resulted in the ouster of more gays than under the previous rules. After first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized "don't ask, don't tell" last week, President Clinton over the weekend said it was "out of whack" and should be reevaluated.

Aides said Gore has not changed his position on gays in the military but is merely reiterating a stand he took inside the White House in 1993 when Clinton tried unsuccessfully to lift the ban. They distributed press clippings and book excerpts identifying Gore as a forceful voice within the administration in favor of homosexuals serving in the armed forces.

As recently as September, however, Gore told the Advocate, a national gay newsmagazine, that he supported "don't ask, don't tell," but "would implement the policy with more compassion. I don't think the changes in the military policy are working the way they were intended to work."

Internally, Gore strategists debated yesterday the possible general election repercussions of his bolder support of gay rights, but decided the recent publicity over the gruesome murder of a gay soldier at Fort Campbell, Ky., last July and a recent Pentagon study showing widespread discrimination in the military were reason enough to articulate a stronger position.

"He had one concern here, which was doing the right thing," said spokesman Chris Lehane.

The Gore campaign also calculated that since Gore's internal opposition to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it was adopted in 1993 was already widely known, it had little to risk and much to gain from a stronger public declaration.

"The record from '93 is pretty clear," one campaign adviser said. "If his Republican opponent decides he wants to make this an issue, they already had the ammunition to do it."

In the statement, Gore said he was prompted to speak out now because of the murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell at Fort Campbell. One campaign adviser said the Gore camp was also eager to short-circuit a brewing controversy within the gay community.

C. Dixon Osburn, co-executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which represents gays in the armed forces, said the killing at Fort Campbell had galvanized opposition to "don't ask, don't tell."

"It shattered any illusion that this was somehow a benign policy," he said. "President Clinton had suggested this policy would be a dawning of a new day in the military, but unfortunately it has been business as usual."

Over the weekend, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) called on Gore to denounce the policy and, as one Gore aide put it: "Rather than respond to one congressman we decided we would issue a broad statement."

The question of gay service members has been one of the most politically explosive of Clinton's presidency. Clinton said during the 1992 campaign that he would would reverse the military's ban on gays.

But when he restated that view shortly after his election, Clinton found himself in the middle of a political firestorm that consumed the opening months of his presidency. In the end, facing a revolt from the Pentagon as well as from key members of Congress from his own party, Clinton agreed to "don't ask, don't tell."

Gore's statement yesterday came as Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered the Pentagon's inspector general to investigate whether homosexuals are being harassed in the ranks.

But Osburn criticized the Pentagon action as a delaying tactic and called on the Pentagon to quickly introduce anti-harassment training for all troops, which was pledged in August but has not yet begun.

He also questioned how homosexuals could participate in the new probe. If they tell investigators about their experiences of harassment experiences, he said, they risk expulsion.

Announcing the investigation, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Inspector General Donald Mancuso would conduct "spot checks" at an unspecified number of major installations to gauge whether there is a "climate" of harassment against gays. Bacon said the choice of installations would be left to Mancuso, who was given 90 days to conduct the probe. He also expressed confidence that investigators would find ways for homosexuals to speak out without putting them at risk.

Bacon said the new Pentagon probe had been under consideration before either of the Clintons spoke out and was prompted by the Fort Campbell murder.

CAPTION: Defense Secretary William S. Cohen set probe of anti-gay harassment.