Gore plumbs advantages of incumbency

Emerging from president's shadow, he is boosted by administration's good news.

In some cases, campaigning for the presidency from a cubicle just down the hall from the Oval Office is an enormous boost.

In others, it's an intolerable burden.

For most of the campaign, Vice President Al Gore's close ties to the White House have been more of a millstone, weighing him down with shades of scandal. But now, President Clinton is handing out goodies to Mr. Gore's camp like a grandparent at Christmas.

Whether it has been breathless news of a boundless budget surplus or the decision to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the administration recently has been doing its share to buoy Gore.

But how these announcements are playing with voters is far from certain. The opening of US oil reserves, for one, caused a bit of backlash, with some seeing bald politics behind the move. The way the White House handles further serendipitous policy decisions and "good news" bulletins will help shape Gore's prospects in a contest so tight that polls are flip-flopping practically weekly.

"You have two very dramatic realities in this race: peace and prosperity - and the residue of Clinton fatigue," says Paul Taylor of the Alliance for Better Campaigns here.

In just the past few weeks:

The White House Wednesday touted a bigger-than-dreamed-of budget surplus. "When Vice President Al Gore and I took office, the budget deficit was $290 billion," crowed Mr. Clinton. This year's surplus is now pegged at $230 billion.

On Tuesday, the White House trumpeted a new Census Bureau report that America's median family income has hit an all-time high - and that the poverty rate is nearing its lowest recorded level. As with the surplus announcement, the implication was clear: Clinton-Gore policies have spurred this progress.

Last week, the decision to release 30 million barrels of oil helped Gore grab headlines.

On Sept. 10, Gore warned entertainment executives that as president he'd give them six months to "clean up their act" and stop marketing violent movies and video games to children. The next day, the Federal Trade Commission released a report critical of the industry.

It all fits in to a pattern, says Tom McClusky of the conservative National Taxpayers Union here. "Any big initiative or big proposal, it's been Al Gore who's been announcing it," he says. "I've never seen anything this big."

Yet there is a danger of overexposure - especially when Gore's persona is connected too closely to Clinton's.

"There's a lot of cynicism out there about Washington politics in general - and Clinton in particular," says Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, referring to the oil announcement.

Indeed, the perks of incumbency haven't always played well for Gore.

There was his infamous Connecticut River canoe trip last July - one that was meant to be a picturesque photo-op. It turned out, however, that the river wasn't deep enough for canoeing. So just before Gore arrived someone let an extra 4 billion gallons of water through the upriver dam.

The ensuing flap saw lots of finger-pointing, and Gore's campaign denying any role in the water dump.

Throughout history, vice presidents have often had trouble harnessing the powers of their position. In 1960, after Vice President Nixon couldn't convince President Eisenhower to take on budget debt to boost the economy, John Kennedy used the weak economic growth against him - and won.

In the end, incumbency advantages can come down to little things. This year, for instance, the Bush camp had to pre-pay $6.4 million in chartered-plane costs for August. They will eventually recoup much of that when the traveling media pays its bills, but the delay hurts Bush in the money race.

Gore, meanwhile, simply has to pay the White House for campaign travel costs.

And then there's the undeniable majesty of the vice presidential entourage - limos, Secret Service vans, and a big blue jet.

Especially in the many small towns a campaign visits, "people are still affected by the grandeur of watching a VP step out of his plane," says Mr. Birkner.

And in this tight race, little things add up.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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