Gore Musters Stump Savvy In Bid for 1996 - and 2000

Al's running hard for office (an oval one) this week in Chicago

For a guy who's supposed to be as wooden as a phone pole, Al Gore was really, really on a roll. He pounded the podium. He waved his hands. He did imitations. He puckered his face with exaggerated distaste and used the phrase "Ginsu knife gang" to describe budget-cutting Republicans.

The vice president leaned forward and said: "I hear ... the sound of victory in this room!" His audience, labor delegates in town to attend the Democratic national convention, exploded with glee.

There's no mistaking it - this week in Chicago, Mr. Gore is running hard for office. It's increasingly clear that the office he's looking at is an oval one, however, and that his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination of the year 2000 may already be under way.

Other Democrats are likely to challenge him. The 2000 race could become a struggle for the heart of the party between centrist Gore and a liberal challenger such as House minority leader Dick Gephardt.

But Gore's steady performance as veep appears to have greatly enhanced his stature in the party. He's provided the administration much-needed gravitas and Washington experience. In return, some of his boss's rhetorical skills may have rubbed off on him.

This week's labor delegate speech may show how far Gore has come. "It's remarkable how relaxed, spontaneous, and interactive it was," says Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. "It marks the continued progression that makes him the presumptive [2000] nominee."

Not that Gore has forgotten there's an election this year. If Clinton-Gore goes down to defeat it becomes that much less likely that Gore will get to be the front half of his own election ticket.

His counterpart on the Republican side will be a formidable hustings opponent. One fact shows how much Democrats here respect Jack Kemp's drawing power: They seldom mention his name. Their litany instead is about the "Dole-Gingrich team" - as if (relatively unpopular) Speaker Newt Gingrich staged a coup and locked Mr. Kemp in some dank Capitol Hill dungeon.

In fact, some top Democrats say speculation about 2000 is merely a diversion. "I doubt anyone takes it too seriously," says Senate majority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "Campaigning in elections is like running hurdles. You've got to keep your eye on the next one or you'll fall."

Such protestations ignore unsubtle maneuvering on the part of both Gore and potential opponents, however. Minority leader Gephardt has pledged to visit all 50 state delegations this week. In his labor speech, Gore pointedly mentioned all the unions he's visited in the last three years, and he's already spending an unusual amount of time in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Gore's ambition is undeniable. He ran for president once, in 1988. The fact that his parents' home has a blank wall reserved for Al's presidential pictures is a Washington legend. Furthermore, in recent decades the post of vice president has become almost an automatic springboard for a presidential bid. From 1945 to now, seven of 11 veeps have won their party's nomination for president.

Since Nelson Rockefeller served under President Gerald Ford, veeps have gradually shed a historic image of uselessness and become key issue shapers, scholars say. Walter Mondale provided often sage advice on Washington's ways for President Jimmy Carter, they point out.

"Gore has followed the Mondale role very closely," says Joseph Pika, a University of Delaware political scientist.

That means he's had clear responsibility for a wide range of important issues. Gore was a point man for the North American Free Trade Agreement - a pact that Gephardt (and many US unions) opposed. He spearheaded a National Performance Review, otherwise known as "reinventing government," which has led to a reduction in federal-worker roles. He's been a key player in US-Russian relations because of his ties to Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

He's also served the traditional veep roles of liaison with core party constituencies and red-meat speech-giver. He's been everywhere in Chicago: at church with Jesse Jackson, at fund-raisers for the US Israel lobby, and at a policy forum with satellite links to a dozen other cities. "It's Gore's convention, too," says University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Jones. "He's meeting people and getting them to think about the year 2000."

Gore demurs when asked the Big P question. His expressions, however, sometimes give him away. At his labor speech AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said he was "glad to see posters over there about Gore in the 21st century." The vice president grinned like a schoolboy who'd just landed a date with a cheerleader.

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