WASHINGTON — As the No. 2 man in an administration operating under a constant ethical cloud, Vice President Al Gore has shown a remarkable ability to avoid trouble.
Until this week.
The Mr. Clean of Democratic politics had already weathered stories last fall about the impropriety of fund-raising in a Buddhist temple. But now he faces a problem that could have staying power. The sight of the vice president standing alone before the press, fielding questions about when and how he made fund-raising calls and insisting he had done nothing illegal, has raised the first specks of doubt that he is anything but President Clinton's heir apparent.
"He's lost his most defining political characteristic, which was integrity," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
But Professor Sabato doesn't view this as a necessarily permanent loss. "The halo's been tarnished, but there is tarnish remover in politics," he says. "It's called time and smart campaigning, and also comparison shopping. How the other candidates look as we get closer to 2000 could have a big effect on how Gore is viewed."
The substance of the allegation about Mr. Gore, as detailed by Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward, is that the vice president made numerous campaign fund-raising calls from his White House office. While it is illegal for a federal employee to solicit donations on federal property, Gore believes he acted legally, because he charged the calls to a credit card supplied by the Democratic National Committee.
"I was advised there was nothing wrong with that practice," Gore said at a press conference March 3.
But even if Gore's actions are eventually ruled technically legal, he has already lost in the realm of public relations. At the very least, the dozens of direct fund-raising calls Gore made appear unseemly, say leading members of both parties. Mr. Woodward quotes wealthy donors as saying they felt they were being "shaken down" by the vice president.
It is, of course, too soon to say where Gore's fund-raising flap will lead. The appointment of an independent counsel, never good for one's political fortunes, is a possibility.
But Gore has a number of angles working in his favor. He has, without a doubt, put together a formidable nationwide network of fund-raisers that will stand him in good stead as he gears up for the 2000 election (a process that begins shockingly soon).
Gore also faces a public that has grown resigned, if not blas, toward political impropriety. Some recent polls show that a slim majority of the public does not think an independent counsel is needed to look into the Democrats' fund-raising practices.
"Americans always want to investigate things, but I think we're just so tired of this," says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington. "There's not a lot of evidence at this point that the latest round of allegations is rubbing off much on the president, so it's my sense that while it doesn't help Gore, it's not clear to me how much it will hurt him."
Gore is also helped by the favorable first impression he created when Mr. Clinton made him his running mate in 1992. Unlike Vice President Dan Quayle or House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who got off to rocky starts in terms of public image when they hit the political big time, Gore's dominant image was that of a solid family man from an established political family.
Gore helped Clinton in '92 by providing a wholesome image that the Arkansas governor lacked. Now Clinton appears to be holding Gore at arm's length, leaving the vice president to face the press all by himself.
"It looks like the White House is throwing him out as the fall guy, at least to some degree," observes George Edwards of Texas A&M University. "Bill Clinton's not famous for his loyalty."
Even though Clinton clearly sees a Gore presidency as part of his legacy, Clinton is also looking out for No. 1 first, Mr. Edwards says.
Gore's dialing-for-dollars problem certainly will give aid and comfort to his potential rivals for 2000, both Democratic and Republican - and may inspire more from his own party to challenge him for the nomination.
"Maybe it gets Democratic rank-and-file types as well as insiders to pause for a moment," says political analyst Stu Rothenberg. "Because without something like this, frankly, the chance of knocking off Al Gore for the presidential nomination ... is somewhere between nil and none."
If Gore faces a tough battle for the nomination, it will make it that much harder to defeat a Republican in the general election. For now, only House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt and former Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey are openly preparing to challenge Gore. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is also holding open the possibility he might run. But a raft of other names have been floating around as well: Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.
From the Republican side, where the field is wide open, media strategist John Gautier has only one regret about Gore's troubles: "It's too bad there's no videotape."