WASHINGTON — If you were listening but not watching the screen, you might have thought your television had jumped from C-SPAN to the Church of the Loudly Devout channel.
But it was Al Gore.
His uncharacteristically charismatic introduction of President Clinton to an upbeat mid-America crowd this week, sounded more like James Brown than the vice president. Mr. Gore roared and rocked, preaching the gospel of saving Social Security, and creating better educational opportunities. By the time Mr. Clinton spoke, he seemed like the stiff one.
The performance epitomizes the higher profile role Gore is assuming at a time of political uncertainty. As the president battles sexual misconduct allegations, Gore the family man is emerging as a pillar of stability for the Democratic Party.
"The vice president will be more active than in the past," says Gov. Roy Romer (D) of Colorado, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
But the new role may be risky. Gore walks a fine line between the role of scandal-free partner and complicit ally.
"If he were to get too far out in front and turned out to be wrong [in his defense of Clinton] it could make his political future more precarious," says Paul Boller Jr., professor emeritus at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.
Still, Gore represents a reassuring Plan B to his party and the country as Mr. Clinton makes clear he has no plans to expand on the nature of his relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky.
"Suddenly straight and a little square is good," points out Chuck Lewis, director of The Center for Public Integrity, a government watchdog group in Washington.
Two days after the controversy broke, Gore declared his confidence in Clinton: "The president has denied the charges, and I believe him." He has since bluntly shunned any hypothetical questions about the president leaving office prematurely.
The Clinton-Gore relationship has been one of the closest of any president and vice president. Gore is considered a full partner. On Monday, he stood squarely behind the president in the Roosevelt Room of the White House during Clinton's most adamant denial to date. Tuesday Gore met in private with Capitol Hill Democrats to bolster support for Clinton's agenda.
THE vice president seems to be staying close, but not too close. "Gore is in fine shape unless there are new facts that require Clinton to exit. Those facts are not known to Al Gore right now and he will not be seen as a collaborator," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College, Northfield, Minn. "Ironically, it may hurt him more in the long haul if Clinton stays and becomes an unpopular president," Professor Schier says.
Gore's sterling reputation took a tarnishing in 1996 over his role in Democratic Party fund-raising tactics at a Los Angeles Buddhist temple. "He's been tainted a bit by the campaign finance scandal but that's weak tea compared to [what Clinton has faced] the past week," says Schier.
Still, Democrats may still have to face the campaign-finance story. This week, the Justice Department indicted Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie for illegally transferring foreign funds into DNC accounts.
The residual heat from the campaign-finance matter, coupled with the increased scrutiny brought by the intern controversy, is creating a hostile environment for Democrats nationwide as they head into the midterm congressional elections.
"There is a political maxim that a larger turnout helps Democrats, and when people are disgusted by [the controversy], it hurts," says Michael Feeley (D) of the Colorado state Senate and gubernatorial candidate. "Republicans will use a guilt by association tactic," he says.
Governor Romer says Gore's standing will help mitigate those concerns: "Gore has been a strength, a unifying force."