Smudge Marks on Al 'Mr. Clean' Gore

Threat of Justice Department probe in months ahead, casts pall over Gore's presidential prospects.

Pity Al Gore - even the spotted owls are starting to distance themselves from him.

That recent late-night joke from Jay Leno may, in a way, be the most telling indicator yet that the vice president's squeaky-clean image has lost some luster. Even if Mr. Gore's typically high poll ratings have remained stable, it may be only a matter of time before the drumbeat of allegations begins to catch up with him.

Most troubling yet to Gore's future was last week's announcement that Attorney General Janet Reno may appoint a special prosecutor after all to probe his fund-raising efforts in last year's election.

But even if Gore is operating under an ethical cloud at the moment, he has still has his biggest political asset: his association with what is for now viewed as a successful administration, as measured by the strong economy and President Clinton's job-approval numbers.

"That's why the ethics stuff hurts, because it raises questions about his inevitability" as the Democratic nominee in the 2000 election, says political analyst Stu Rothenberg. He adds that it encourages Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, the two Democrats beside Gore who have been actively wooing party regulars in New Hampshire and Iowa, the early primary and caucus states in the presidential race.

Gore's ethics problems also leave him vulnerable in a way that his boss hasn't been. While Clinton has a reputation for being able to talk his way out of just about any problem, Gore's skills have not been put to the same test.

And there have been glaring gaps in what Gore claims he knew about his fund-raising activities versus what he should have or could have known.

One key question about Gore is whether he knew some of the campaign money he solicited by phone from the White House would wind up in legally restricted "hard money" accounts - money that would be used for a particular campaign - rather than "soft money" accounts, which are used for general party purposes.

What did he know and when?

The new allegation that Gore's fund-raising went into hard-money accounts prompted the Justice Department to launch a review of Gore's phone solicitations, with an eye toward a possible appointment of a special prosecutor.

Gore's image also took a hit last week during the Senate campaign-finance hearings as Buddhist nuns testified about a Democratic fund-raiser Gore attended at their temple last year.

Again, the question of what Gore knew about the nature of that fund-raiser - and his persistent denials that he knew the event was a fund-raiser - has strained his credibility as the Mr. Clean of the Democratic Party.

During the hearings, Senate Republicans pointed to several memos that had crossed Gore's desk that referred to the event as a "fund-raiser."

But it was not Gore who answered directly to the allegations. His former deputy chief of staff, David Strauss, faced the klieg lights, while, in an interesting bit of political timing, Gore visited New Hampshire. There, he appeared in public events and mingled with party activists.

The vice president was greeted with harsh headlines from the conservative Manchester Union Leader, but Bob Quinn, communications director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, maintains his state is good turf for Gore.

"Clinton is very popular up here, and that will help Gore," says Mr. Quinn, who adds he hasn't heard Democratic party activists express any reservations about Gore lately.

Elsewhere in the country, political analysts say the general public remains inattentive to the campaign-finance story. "To the extent that anyone is paying attention, they appear to be discounting it as part of the system," says Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.

Inevitable decline?

But if Ms. Reno does appoint a special prosecutor - producing a stark and understandable headline - that will certainly break through to the public.

For now, though, it may be that Gore has already descended into the realm of "mere politician."

"I do think he was seen as better than most and better than the man above him.... And I think that is probably not true any longer," says Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster.

"Clearly, he'd rather be back where he was. But on the other hand, it's probably true that this was inevitable - that once you get out and actively pursue the presidency in an aggressive way, you reveal a kind of political ambition that tends to take a little bit of the shine off your reputation no matter what."

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