As his plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base on Monday night, Vice President Gore gave aides the go-ahead to release a statement calling for elimination of President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. The one-paragraph, handwritten statement capped days of personal reflection and political debate by Gore and his campaign team.

Horrified by the murder of a gay soldier last summer, pressured by gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and emboldened by shifting political winds inside the White House, Gore calculated that his enemies would use his support for gay rights regardless, and his friends deserved a public affirmation.

"This is one of the holdover loyalty issues that the vice president is shaking himself free of," said Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights lobbying group. "He could have been bolder earlier; thank God he's now saying what he actually thinks."

Although privately opposing the policy since its inception in 1993, this was the first time Gore publicly separated himself from the administration on the issue.

Republicans accused Gore of political posturing. Campaigning in South Carolina, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) reiterated his support for the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. In an apparent reference to Gore, he said, "I don't understand why anybody who would pretend to lead this country would take a position on this policy without consulting military leaders."

Texas Gov. George W. Bush told reporters in Iowa, "I support 'don't ask, don't tell,' and I think it ought to be made to work." Bush said the next commander in chief must send "one clear signal" to the military: "We're not going to tolerate abuse. We expect people to be treated with respect."

Gore's allies say Gore was finally giving voice to strongly held private views. "The climate was changing and the vice president felt he could make a contribution" by speaking out now, said Jeffrey Trammel, a gay lobbyist who spoke to Gore last week.

As recently as last Thursday, Gore told Glamour magazine reporter David France, he wanted to work with the Pentagon to adjust enforcement of the policy.

"I will work with military leaders to bring about an implementation policy that is fairer and more compassionate," Gore wrote. "I will also work to reduce the number of discharges that occur. I believe that we can make significant progress without having to start from ground zero."

But even as he was sending that e-mail, the political ground was shifting. Last Tuesday, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, following the lead of Gore's Democratic rival Bill Bradley, urged the Pentagon to eliminate the policy. By Saturday, the president was inching in that direction, ordering a review of implementation of the policy.

At the same time, Frank, in a radio interview, pressed Gore to take a firmer stand and Pvt. Calvin Glover was found guilty of bludgeoning to death Pfc. Barry Winchell in their barracks at Fort Campbell, Ky., in a murder widely attributed to anti-gay sentiment.

On Monday, in Ohio, a gay rights advocate asked the vice president where he stood on "don't ask, don't tell."

A few hours later, Gore sat in his cabin on Air Force Two and wrote out his statement. "Gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve their country without discrimination," he said.