Gore casts boss in supporting role

Vice president strikes deal where, for now, Clinton steers clear of campaign trail.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's OK with Al Gore if Bill Clinton travels to Nigeria today. Also allowed: presidential waging of the legislative battle with Congress, and lots of dinners by the fundraiser-in-chief.

But no campaigning for now. And no high-profile executive orders or other domestic events that would overshadow Mr. Gore and his post-convention upswing.

Since the day the vice president launched his bid to succeed his boss, the question of what to do with the president has never been fully answered.

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Now, the White House and the Gore campaign have reached a deal that says "yes" to foreign affairs, the legislative agenda, and fundraising. But in other respects, the president is to keep a low profile.

The interesting thing about this agreement, worked out between White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and Gore campaign chief William Daley, is its shelf-life: A mere two weeks, ending with Labor Day.

Still unresolved is the divisive issue of whether Mr. Clinton will hit the campaign trail this fall - as several state Democratic chairmen have urged - or whether he'll "get off the stage," as Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska advises.

"The caveat here is that we're giving (the president) a period until Labor Day," says White House spokesman Jake Siewert, who adds that all that's happened is a mere recalibrating of the president's schedule. "We haven't made decisions about how and where the president will campaign in the fall yet."

Busy fall for Clinton

It's unlikely, however, that these parameters will change much in September, because Clinton will have his hands full when lawmakers return to wrangle over such issues as a minimum-wage hike, a patients' bill of rights, a prescription-drug benefit and education spending.

"The reality is that we think, and the vice president's campaign agrees as well, that we can be very effective in framing the legislative debate this fall," says Mr. Siewert. It's important, he says, because it points out the differences between the parties - something "the Republicans are trying to blur."

Meanwhile, Clinton's foreign policy plate will be loaded as well, with a visit from the Indian prime minister, a slew of bilateral meetings in New York (where he'll address the United Nations), and the Middle East peace process. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has asserted his right to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state if peace talks fail, and the Clinton team desperately wants to avoid this potential land mine.

Before the convention, when Gore had yet to get his updraft, state Democratic chairmen were anxious to have Clinton visit. Paul Berendt, chairman of the Washington State Democrats, called the president a "secret weapon," and said he should be deployed to inspire the party base.

"The real key to winning in November is energizing people to get out the vote," Mr. Berendt said. "It can be debated whether Clinton is a plus or minus for nonaligned voters, but with our base voters, he's just a huge asset. No one can communicate to the heart like Bill Clinton can."

But this idea was lambasted at the convention by a host of top-tier Democrats who said it was time for Clinton to back off. Indeed, the White House acknowledges that Clinton's post-convention vacation, and his decision to cancel a welfare event this week, worked to the vice president's advantage.

Still, it's not as if you can muzzle this energetic commander in chief, or lock him in a closet.

Asked this week whether going on the hustings for Gore is a good idea, the president dodged the question. Instead he said "the most important thing is for me to do as much as I can for the American people in the job I have between now and January 20th." The second most important thing, he said, "is for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman to go out and spread the message - and I think they're doing quite a good job of that."

Gore surge eases concerns

Independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg suggests that the controversy over Clinton campaigning may have lost some of its edge because of Gore's surge in the polls.

"I don't know if this is as much of a problem now," Mr. Rothenberg says. "If he's truly come out from Clinton's shadow already, it doesn't matter. Why change something that's working?"

But things can turn suddenly in a campaign, he warns. Even in sticking to the legislative battle, the president could get sucked into "the whole election mess," he says, suggesting it is best for the Gore campaign and the White House to deal with the president's role on a day-by-day basis.

That's exactly the point made by an official at the Democratic National Committee.

"I think it's perfectly smart to move in smaller, tangible time frames, because nobody knows what (House Speaker) Denny Hastert and (Senate majority leader) Trent Lott will do - or more importantly not do. The rhythm of campaigns change. You'd be silly to definitively say what Clinton's role is going to be for the rest of this campaign."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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