Gore's 'Clinton problem'

Politics is so hard to explain. That's partly what makes it so interesting. So now as a prime example of this we have a president with high performance ratings and a vice president who is well behind George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole in early polls on the next presidential race.

The polls are, indeed, early and perhaps, as Al Gore said in his own defense in a TV interview the other night, "meaningless." The vice president says that as soon as the public sees his vision for the country, as the campaign unfolds, these polls will turn around. And he may well be right.

But I think there's something very illogical going on: It seems to me that the vibrant economy that is keeping President Clinton aloft in the polls, despite his scandalous behavior, simply isn't working that well for his vice president. Why, you have to ask, wouldn't voters almost automatically go for a Gore, expressing their gratitude to someone who has been walking side-by-side with the man they credit with keeping money in their pockets?

Well, I'm coming to believe (as I fight my way through this complexity) that while much of the public still supports Mr. Clinton, much of that same public is really very unhappy with the president's conduct and now is looking elsewhere for its next president. "Elsewhere," it appears, means outside this scandal-scarred White House. And that judgment applies to Mr. Gore.

This brings me to the conclusion that a vice president who has been widely viewed as particularly close to the president - the public well remembers Gore's speech in which he predicted that Clinton would be rated one of our "greatest presidents" - will have to make a special effort to separate himself from Clinton.

I noted that in the TV interview Gore seemed to sense this problem. He strongly asserted that he had never been under Clinton's shadow, that as vice president he had walked his own way as a backer of the environment and in bringing creative ideas to improving the way government works.

And Gore didn't shy away from criticizing Clinton's conduct, calling his relationship with Monica Lewinsky "indefensible" and adding that "what he did was wrong." Indeed, he used those same words in a speech in New Hampshire last September.

Perhaps as the vice president repeats this criticism of Clinton and, at the same time, makes it clear during the upcoming campaign that he is, indeed, his "own man," he will be able to win back those voters who are looking elsewhere - those who "suffered" Clinton's excesses but now want a breath of fresh air in the White House.

But I'm reminded of what might be called the "Hubert Humphrey problem."

Back in 1968 it was clear that Vice President Humphrey would have to separate himself on the Vietnam War from the hawkish President Johnson.

I was on the press plane with Humphrey during the last few weeks of his presidential campaign. Polls showed he was more than 10 percentage points behind Nixon, who had announced that he had a plan to end the war - although, as we know, he was later very slow in moving in that direction.

At this point Humphrey finally broke with Johnson on the war. It enraged Johnson.

But Humphrey almost overnight became a new man, a different candidate. The old Humphrey bounce now was there. Audiences again clung to his words. We reporters could feel the lift in the Humphrey campaign.

And Humphrey, now on his own, began to move up in the polls, coming within an eyelash of catching Nixon. In another week I think he would have done it.

Will Gore finally have to "break" with the president - having to go beyond his present criticism of Clinton and condemn him for lowering the nation's moral standards, for setting such a terrible example for our youth?

Will he, too, find it necessary to claim that he would bring a breath of fresh air to the presidency?

Indeed, will he have to risk infuriating Clinton in order to turn those polls around?

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