For This Vice President, the Job's More Than a Black Suit

Al Gore Jr. has managed to identify himself with the key projects of this administration

ALMOST a year ago, just as the Clinton team took over the White House, a prominent national journal dubbed Al Gore, Jr. ``the incredible shrinking vice president.''

Mr. Gore may not have the constant face time with Bill Clinton that he had in the transition period, when a single handful of people were gathering daily in Little Rock, Ark., to assemble the coming administration.

But by now he may also have surpassed all previous holders of the vice presidency in visibility and the influence he has attained so early in his term.

His vice presidency has not gone in the direction many expected.

Gore's long-standing and deep convictions on the environment have not been very visible in office, although Gore was the decisive influence in choosing the nation's top two environmental officials - heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House environment office, Carol Browner and Kathleen McGinty. Also, he has taken assignments on technology policy as expected, but they have been overshadowed by more high-profile projects.

Gore's work has been mainstreamed in two ways:

* He has managed to identify himself most closely with the most centrist, bipartisan projects of this administration.

* He has not been absorbed into issues with special constituencies.

He has devoted much of his first year to a massive project to streamline the federal bureaucracy. The Reinventing Government project - REGO, in White House jargon - will take months and years to play out into significant results, but it has been highly visible and critically acclaimed so far.

And, of course, he ended the legislative year with a high-risk maneuver that in many ways is the high point of his career to date, his much-watched live television matchup with Ross Perot. That debate seemed to take Mr. Perot down a notch or two in credibility.

The public response in Gore's favor became a turning point in the lobbying effort for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), giving wavering members of Congress added confidence to vote for it.

``There is a hard-to-measure currency, an inner capital, in the White House,'' says Paul Light, a University of Minnesota political scientist who has written on the vice presidency. ``Gore's inner capital right now has to be very high.''

The closest comparison in the annals of the vice presidency to Gore's performance in the debate with Perot was Richard Nixon's ``kitchen debate'' with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Eisenhower administration.

The Nixon-Khrushchev debate won far more attention than the Gore-Perot match. But unlike the Gore-Perot debate, Mr. Nixon's had no policy consequences and was more part of his upcoming presidential campaign than it was of the business of the Eisenhower administration.

The most influential previous vice president was Walter Mondale, who built the office into one with higher stature for his successors as well as himself.

Both Reinventing Government and NAFTA stand as the White House's strongest two arguments that it is a New Democratic regime and not the Old Democratic ethos of big government and federal regulation.

Gore has not taken as high a profile in supporting the administration's more-liberal propositions, such as its budget and health-care proposals.

The president and White House aides seem to especially appreciate Gore's ability to study complex issues and sharpen policy positions on them into comprehensible public messages.

This is one reason Mr. Clinton asked Gore a few weeks ago to take on a greater foreign policy role.

The role of a senior diplomat on missions like the one Gore took to Mexico last week is a typical one for a vice president.

Gore also quietly became chairman in September of an administration task force on community empowerment.

This group of eight Cabinet officers plus senior White House staff members will carry out initiatives on empowerment zones and tax breaks to draw investment to depressed neighborhoods. But the group is casting its net wider as well to cope with the range of problems weighing against economic development of the urban poor.

President Clinton has suggested that this is going to become an increasingly central concern of the White House in coming months.

Whether Gore and his task force become main players in welfare reform, the major initiative expected from the White House in January, is not yet apparent.

But Gore has been spending a couple of hours a week conferring with experts and studying urban economic development - a modus operandi that has made him a major player in the past on issues from nuclear strategy to environmental policy.

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