Gore's turn to plead 'mea culpa'

Amid new queries over his role in illegal fund-raising, he takes a confessional - and reformist - approach.

Vice President Al Gore has launched a bold gambit to recast himself as a latter-day John McCain, a reformer out to change the way campaigns are financed.

And he's doing so just a few years after the biggest flap over presidential campaign fund-raising since Watergate - one in which the vice president, the presumed Democratic candidate for president this fall, played a central role.

The question is: Can Mr. Gore pull off this preemptive strike? Eight months before the general election, can the vice president inure the public to film footage of himself at a 1996 Democratic fund-raiser - the infamous Buddhist temple event - in which funds were raised illegally?

The deeper question may be how much the public, particularly the independent voters who will tip the balance in November, really care about Gore and fund-raising.

But in the absence of a clear answer, Gore is following the old sports maxim - "the best defense is a good offense." Not only is he saying he's learned from his mistakes, he's boldly taking on the issue of campaign finance as a central theme in his campaign.

Some analysts say Gore is clever to follow the examples of Senator McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, his expected Republican rival in November - both of whom appeared to overcome less-than-pristine pasts by acknowledging mistakes and saying they had learned their lessons.

But others aren't so sure. Gore's fund-raising problems are still relatively recent, and it's not clear if an informal "statute of limitations" has really expired.

"I don't think Al Gore gets that pass," says Paul Light, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution here. "His most recent engagements on the campaign-finance system were in '96, even a little after that. I don't think he's been wandering in the wilderness."

Ultimately, though, it is the voters who will pass judgment on Gore's recent past, or at least weigh his actions with all the other issues and qualities that go into how the electorate decides who should be the next president.

Governor Bush has his own "mea culpa" for voters to factor in. He has acknowledged that he used to drink too much, but stopped drinking altogether when he turned 40. On the question of possible drug use, his answers are less exact. He has stated only that he "made mistakes" and that he learned from them. He has also ruled out any illegal drug use since 1974.

For McCain, one aspect of his life that never became an issue in his campaign was marital infidelity. He freely acknowledged that he had been unfaithful to his first wife, end of discussion.

On campaign finance, McCain's raison d'etre as a presidential candidate, it was his involvement in the Keating Five influence-peddling scandal that changed his views in the first place. In the campaign, the senator relished questions about Keating Five, which gave him the opportunity to admit mistakes - and then emphasize his point about the evils of unregulated "soft money" donations.

But for McCain, Keating Five occurred long enough ago - in the 1980s - that this notional statute of limitations had, in the eyes of many, seemed to expire.

For Gore, repercussions of the 1996 campaign illegalities still make front-page news. This month, a longtime Gore fund-raiser, Maria Hsia, was convicted of five felonies for her role in the Buddhist temple fund-raiser that Gore attended in '96.

At that event, the Democratic Party collected at least $55,000 in illegal donations. At first, Gore stated he did not know the temple event was a fund-raiser; later he said he knew it was "finance-related."

"Character [and] integrity, that's what it's all about," says political analyst Stu Rothenberg. "He's going to have to refute that on a daily basis - what he knew when he was fund-raising, particularly the Buddhist temple."

Gore is also facing a wave of new stories about the fund-raising calls that he made from the White House during the '96 re-election campaign, a practice that nearly won him the appointment of an independent counsel. Fresh reports indicate that Attorney General Janet Reno came closer to appointing a counsel than was previously thought.

Ultimately, Ms. Reno did not make the appointment, saying the facts of the case did not merit it. But the new stories have revived talk of whether her decision was based on political considerations, a claim her spokesman denies.

Gore, for his part, has embraced the same finance-reform proposal that McCain favored, a ban on soft money to political parties. Though Bush is casting himself as a reformer, too, the GOP establishment strongly opposes a ban on soft money.

*Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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