SIX years ago, R. James Woolsey visited the office of then Rep. Albert Gore Jr. to find the young congressman grilling computer analysts on the premises underlying their nuclear-strategy models. Mr. Gore was trying to figure out how to retool the models around deterring first strikes. ``This is not an intellectually passive man,'' notes Mr. Woolsey, a former undersecretary of defense under President Carter.
If Mr. Gore, now a freshman senator from Tennessee, were elected in 1988, he would be the youngest American president ever.
He has never been a manager or executive in either public or private life, nor has he held a committee chairmanship or other formal leadership post in Congress.
But Mr. Gore runs on the fast track. Through hard-headed intellect and tireless homework, he has muscled into a leading role in some of the highest-stakes policy debates of the 1980s.
In eight years in the House and three in the Senate, Gore has established a reputation as a crack investigator and an aggressive problem solver with an enormous capacity for mastering difficult subjects.
In particular, while still in the House, he became one of six key voices on Capitol Hill on nuclear strategy and arms control.
He was to the manner born. His mother was a lawyer with a reputation for keenness of mind. His father was a US senator. Gore entered Congress in 1976 no stranger to the ways and means of power.
He grew up both in Tennessee, on a picturesque family farm, and in Washington, D.C.'s Fairfax Hotel, where the family lived while Congress was in session. On the farm, young Al - no proud princeling - often lived with a tenant family.
The son, educated at elite St. Albans school in Washington, then Harvard, is more cerebral than his father, who was known for the common touch. The younger Gore's record shows him consistently staking out positions in the middle, trying to mediate between opposing sides in difficult controversies, challenging accepted conventions, and always thinking strategically.
Gore is formal, even a trifle stiff in his manner. Even so, in 1984 he carried more votes than any other Senate candidate in Tennessee history.
The Gore style began to emerge soon after Harvard when he was a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. Gore worked his way up from swab-bucket assignments to covering the county courthouse. As a writer, he was unremarkable, editors recall, but his energy, painstaking digging, and care with facts made him a star investigative reporter.
He exposed a bribe taken by Nashville councilman Jack Clariday for a zoning change. Mr. Clariday was eventually sentenced to prison, although he was granted probation without serving any time.
Gore also sat in on a sting operation against a metro councilman, Morris Haddox, who was indicted for soliciting a $1,000 bribe.
Although Mr. Haddox introduced the zoning change he was paid for the very evening of the bribe, his attorney argued that Haddox was himself trying to catch the bribe-maker. He was acquitted by a jury.
The prosecutor in the Haddox case, who worked with Gore on it for months, remembers him clearly. ``He was one of the most intellectually honest guys I know,'' says Robert S. Schwartz, now an attorney in Florida. Unlike many of the other courthouse reporters, says Mr. Schwartz, ``he never colored it or wrote it any way but the way it was. He did his job with dignity and dispatch and never aggrandized himself.''
On at least one recent occasion, however, Gore exaggerated his role in the Clariday prosecution, claiming that his reporting had sent the councilman to jail. Gore later said he assumed Clariday had been imprisoned, because the councilman's probation was granted after a lengthy appeal process, when the congressman had lost touch with the case.
Soon after Haddox was acquitted, Gore enrolled in Vanderbilt Law School. He was beginning his third year there - writing Tennessean editorials by day - when tipped that the congressman from his father's old district was retiring. Within three days, he entered the race.
He put the vagaries of youth immediately behind him. He recently admitted that he smoked marijuana several times in college and the early years thereafter. His hair was longish, a Tennessean editor recalls, up to the day he announced for Congress.
But Gore had never ventured far into the 1960s counterculture. College friends recall him mainly for his sober interests, competitive drive, and gracious Southern manners.
In Congress, Gore began attracting attention through his performances at hearings. He excelled in the role of lead prosecutor.
He became the chief congressional investigator in bringing the Love Canal toxic dumping scandal to light. His interrogation of Hooker Chemical officials was aggressive and punctuated with hard evidence, such as internal company memoranda. He eventually co-authored the Superfund law for toxic-waste cleanup.
The eager lawmaker's hearings attracted press attention. This was good for Gore's causes - and his career.
If Gore ever gave full voice to outrage, it may have been over President Reagan's foot-dragging on the federal computerized organ-transplant network Gore designed.
``What can we do to make him keep his word?'' Gore asked last year, two years after Reagan had signed the network into law. ``How many desperate phone calls and deaths will it take?''
At the heart of Gore's career, however, is the debate over nuclear weapons strategy and control.
IN 1980, as the nuclear freeze movement was beginning to hit its stride, Gore spoke to a Girls' State meeting in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and was stunned to find that most of them thought nuclear war would occur in their lifetimes.
He began studying nuclear strategy for about an hour a day for 14 months, until he mastered it and arrived at his own program for melding strategy and arms control.
Gore's own experience of war came in Vietnam, where he spent six months as an army reporter. He was near combat but never fired his weapon nor was fired upon.
In March 1982, Gore read his long, detailed plan for stabilizing the arms race into the Congressional Record. It landed without a splash.
The gist of it was that small land-based missiles carrying only one warhead apiece provide a better deterrent against a Soviet first strike than MX missiles mounted with 10 warheads each. The single-warhead missiles create a too-scattered target for an enemy pre-emptive strike, Gore reasoned.
A few weeks later in the Soviet Union, high-ranking Soviet officials twice asked an American delegation about the Gore plan, citing its details at a time when arms control talks were at a dead standstill.
The notion of a small-missile, dubbed the ``Midgetman,'' gradually caught hold. Gore had not invented the idea, but he was among its early supporters. Henry Kissinger promoted a similar plan in 1983 in a Time magazine essay.
Gore had mastered arms control, not only to the standards of a bright congressman, but to the standards of arms professionals, says Mr. Woolsey, who wrote the report of Reagan's special Commission on Strategic Forces (the Scowcroft Commission) several years ago.
At the same time, Gore had discovered the politically perfect missile for a Democrat to support.
``It was one way he could seem to be strong on defense and at the same time do something for stability and arms control,'' notes Andrew C. Goldberg, of Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``I don't doubt his sincerity, but it is an extremely attractive missile politically.''
Plan in hand, Gore set about becoming a shaper of policy.
With a few other defense moderates, Gore brokered a deal between congressional liberals and the administration. The Pentagon could keep its giant MX, as a bargaining chip with the Soviets, if it would also begin developing a Midgetman.
In 1984, as Congress was growing skeptical that Reagan would take up arms talks, Gore promoted another compromise: cutting the MX program in half, but not scrapping it.
TODAY, the MX program is still alive and the Midgetman, in the face of budget cutbacks, is dangling by a thread.
``He was willing to swallow the administration's promises on arms control, which then were not real,'' says John Isaacs, legislative director for the Council for a Livable World.
``He certainly got it into his head that he was a master negotiator, that he could cut deals with the administration,'' Mr. Isaacs says. ``His abilities sometimes run ahead of his judgment.''
The aggressiveness that has won Gore attention has ruffled more feathers in the tradition-bound, seniority-conscious Senate than it did in the House. He knows the etiquette. But he's also a young man in a hurry.
In what some political experts consider a high-risk strategy, Gore has virtually abandoned his campaign efforts in Iowa and, to a large extent, New Hampshire, where his bid has received little support. He is concentrating his attention and money on the 14 Southern and border states that will hold primaries on Super Tuesday, March 8.
Gore concedes that his candidacy rides on the outcome of Super Tuesday. In national polls of Democratic voters conducted in mid-December, Gore won only 5 percent backing. But Atlanta Constitution polls of Southern Democrats have placed Gore second, only slightly behind Jesse Jackson.
A passion for policy details
IS Albert Gore the hawk among Democratic doves running for president - as he sometimes has been portrayed?
Gore is alone among his Democratic rivals in his support of hanging US flags on Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf and of the US invasion of Grenada.
He supports the Arias peace plan for Central America, however, and has consistently voted against all forms of military aid to the contras.
Gore's rivals accuse him of tough talk about small policy differences.
Nuclear arms. Gore is widely respected as a leading congressional expert on the technical aspects of nuclear weapons. His record has run more moderate than liberal.
While many Democrats in Congress have been trying to kill off the MX missile, Gore has supported it - if only to exert leverage on the Reagan administration to develop the Midgetman, a single-warhead missile that Gore says would stabilize deterrence and the arms race.
But he is no hawk. He has tried to cut Strategic Defense Initiative funds well below levels that conservative Democrats such as Sam Nunn of Georgia approve. Gore supports SDI research and development as a hedge against Soviet developments, but not actual deployment.
Environment. Among environmentalists, Gore ranks ahead of all the other presidential candidates.
After aggressively leading hearings on the Love Canal toxic waste dump, he co-authored the Superfund bill to clean up hazardous wastes. He has prodded the Environmental Protection Agency on the issue in the years since.
But Gore's real distinction has been his grasp of some of the threats to the future world environment. ``I think it would be safe to say that he goes to bed at night worrying about things like stratospheric ozone depletion and global warming,'' says Joseph Goffman, staff attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.
The budget. Gore voted for a balanced budget amendment in 1986 that failed in the Senate by one vote. But he supported it only when a requirement was added that the president must submit a balanced budget to Congress.
To cut the budget deficit, he proposes a bipartisan meeting between White House and congressional leaders. He proposes defense spending cuts, in part by reforming Pentagon buying practices. He stops short of calling for a tax increase, he says, ``but taxes need to be on the table.''
Trade. Gore opposes the trade bill drafted by his rival, Rep. Richard Gephardt, that would retaliate against countries that sustain large trade surpluses with the US. But in cases of flagrantly unfair practices or where a US industry's survival is threatened, Gore supports trade restrictions.
Tobacco. Tobacco is a major industry in Tennessee, home to some 100,000 tobacco farmers. Yet in 1984 Gore forged a bill requiring rotating health warning labels on cigarette packages - a bill opposed by the tobacco lobby.
Earlier that year, Mr. Gore's sister and only sibling, Nancy Gore Hunger, had died of lung cancer.
The Gore approach on the warning labels was, as ever, pragmatic. He mediated between the Tobacco Institute and the cancer, heart, and lung associations, groups that refuse to deal with each other directly. The compromise he fashioned was just soft enough that the tobacco lobbyists grudgingly let it pass.
A member of a public family
OLDER voters knew Sen. Albert Gore Sr. as a down-home liberal strongly opposed to the Vietnam war who jousted with the Nixon administration.
Younger voters know ``Tipper'' Gore, wife of the presidential candidate, as a crusader against obscenity in rock-music lyrics.
Albert Gore Jr. grew up in a public family. Now his wife is, in some circles, more famous than he is.
Tipper Gore, nee Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson, began her controversial crusade after reading the sexually explicit lyrics on a Prince album one of her children brought home.
Mrs. Gore formed the Parents' Music Resource Center with Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker III, to make parents more aware of the violent and sexually-explicit material their children find in record stores. She has written a book on the subject, ``Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society.''
In 1986 the Senate Commerce Committee, on which her husband sits, held a hearing on a voluntary music rating system, much like movie ratings. Senator Gore stressed that the proposed ratings ``do not involve a government role of any kind whatsoever. They are not asking for any form of censorship or regulation of speech....''
But it was a Senate hearing, after all, and the tag of censor has dogged Tipper Gore's reputation with much of the rock audience and in the music industry - a rich source of campaign funds for Democrats.
She has also taken up the cause of the homeless. She is on the steering committee and board of directors of Families for the Homeless.
Pauline Gore, the candidate's mother, was in the first class of Vanderbilt Law School to admit women. She later became a partner in a Washington law firm, and is said by acquaintances to be the ``brains'' in the family.
The Gores' children are Karenna, Kristin, Sarah, and Albert III.
Second in a series. Tomorrow: Alexander Haig.