Vice President Gore, who only a few months ago seemed to look for opportunities to distance himself from President Clinton, has shifted course once again, sprinting toward the early primaries by unabashedly defending the president and associating himself with the Clinton-Gore record.

In recent campaign appearances, Gore has sharply challenged Democratic rival Bill Bradley regarding the administration's performance on racial matters and told voters he was "deeply honored" to be Clinton's running mate. He has handled questions about the president's sex scandals without resorting to his once-customary discourses on his disappointment in his boss's behavior. And he's about to air a new television commercial touting the economic accomplishments of the Clinton-Gore team.

Gore's new comfort with the president will be on national display during Thursday night's State of the Union address, Clinton's eighth and final. Last fall, Gore backers would have cringed at the notion of his being locked into a political and visual set piece that illustrates every vice president's subservient role: Standing and applauding repeatedly as the president speaks in prime time on the major TV networks.

But now they seem to view the speech--which will air less than a week before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary--as a fortuitous occasion to showcase Clinton at his best while letting the vice president bask in the administration's accomplishments, the booming economy and public approval of the president's performance, if not character.

"The State of the Union will help highlight Gore's greatest strength, which is the Clinton-Gore record," said Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and a Gore supporter. The speech "will emphasize the good direction of the country, and that helps Gore. People will be less likely to want to change horses."

Gore's growing willingness to tie himself to Clinton may be explained partially by his desire to cultivate Democratic primary voters who are less inclined to focus on Clinton's ethical lapses than are independents and Republicans. That was proven dramatically Monday night, when surveys of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa found that 84 percent approved of Clinton's job performance (though about half did not have a favorable view of him personally); Gore handily dispatched Bradley by a 2 to 1 margin.

Some Democratic strategists, meanwhile, feel that many voters will place little if any blame for Clinton's private misdeeds on Gore, but give the vice president substantial credit for the administration's accomplishments. Under that analysis, Gore has more to gain than lose by linking himself to Clinton's policies.

"We've heard what the negative is of the Clinton-Gore relationship," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who campaigned with Gore last week in Iowa and will stump in New Hampshire, too. "It's, 'We are angry at [Clinton's] personal misdeeds.' The flip side of that entire equation is that the Clinton-Gore partnership also brings a positive, and that is the economic success."

Even GOP pollster Linda DiVall said "it doesn't take a genius" to realize that Gore played it smart by realigning himself with the president. As for the general election, she said, Republicans might be tempted to hammer away at Clinton if Gore is the nominee, but in light of the president's resiliency they might be wise to reconsider.

"Hopefully the Republicans learned their lesson in 1998: It's not enough to run against Clinton," DiVall said, referring to the GOP's midterm losses in congressional elections.

Former Clinton speechwriter Paul Begala said that because Gore is inextricably tied to the president for good and for bad, he might as well make the most of the positive images, including the big speech. "It links him to the president at his best moment," Begala said.

Increasingly, that seems to be Gore's attitude. When Bradley, in a Jan. 17 Iowa debate, challenged Gore to demand that Clinton sign an executive order banning racial profiling of criminal suspects, the vice president shot back:

"I don't think President Bill Clinton needs a lecture from Bill Bradley about how to stand up and fight for African Americans and Latinos in this country!"

He showed similar resolve at a Cedar Falls, Iowa, voters' forum where Craig Wood, 52, alluded to the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal that prompted Clinton's impeachment. Wood, of Linn County, said: "I'm concerned your ability to win the election is reduced by your association with the Clinton scandal. . . . Why don't you just say, 'I wouldn't have done that.' "

Without missing a beat, Gore jumped in. "I wouldn't have done that," he said, disarming the audience and dispensing with a lecture on how disappointed he was in Clinton's behavior--once a staple of such exchanges. And during a recent late-night visit to Burlington, Iowa, Gore reminisced about the 1992 campaign.

"I was deeply honored to join the ticket with Bill Clinton," he told a few hundred people jammed into the Pzazz ballroom of the Best Western. "Remember when we came here to Burlington in 1992? . . . That was a great rally."

Last fall, Gore campaign aides acknowledged that feminist author Naomi Wolf, a paid consultant, had advised the vice president to distance himself from the president. Other advisers also warned of "Clinton fatigue," saying voters were tired of the scandals and soap opera quality of the seven-year-old administration.

As the new year approached, say people close to Gore, the vice president gradually shed some of these concerns and became increasingly comfortable handling questions about his association with Clinton.

For his part, Clinton has steadfastly backed Gore's candidacy, even when the vice president seemed to go out of his way to suggest his displeasure with Clinton's behavior. Some associates said the president privately fumed at times, but he never stopped sharing the credit with Gore when speaking about the nation's strong economy or administration initiatives for health care and other matters.

If anything, Clinton has quickened the pace of crediting the vice president in recent days, singling out Gore's role in proposals to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Aides say the president will also praise Gore in the State of Union speech, just as he has done before, and will spotlight several programs promoted by the vice president, including job training and environmental protection. In last year's address, Clinton thanked the vice president for helping create "a government for the information age." The year before that, he praised Gore for trimming the federal bureaucracy and red tape.

In general, Clinton has shown far more willingness to help his running mate than did Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan, neither of whom bothered to mention his vice president in his final election-year State of the Union address even though the men--Richard M. Nixon in 1960 and George Bush in 1988--were running for president.

Aides to Bradley acknowledge that tomorrow night's State of the Union broadcast will reinforce Gore's image as an administration player, but they hope some Democratic voters won't see that as a plus. The fact that Clinton scheduled the speech a few days before the New Hampshire primary "shows that they think it's helpful," said Bradley's communications director, Anita Dunn. "People will see him up there as a loyal supporter of President Clinton--he's been a very loyal vice president. People see that in different ways."

CAPTION: Vice President Gore and wife Tipper are greeted by cheering students in Manchester, N.H.