Tue, 15 Aug 2000

Gore tries to distance himself from scandal

By Ron Fournier

LOS ANGELES (AP): George W. Bush wants to make moral values a campaign issue. Well, guess what? So does Al Gore.

Republicans tried in their presidential convention to resurrect voter disgust with the 1999 impeachment saga. They used buzz words -- integrity, honor, decency -- to stir memories of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Against this backdrop, Gore has launched a values campaign to distance himself from the sex scandal. But his task has been complicated by two men he can't control: Bush and Clinton.

In the week before the Democratic National Convention, Gore has:

* Named as his running mate Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the most vocal Democratic critic of Clinton's personal behavior. Advisers portrayed it as a major step away from the president and his scandal.

* Moved forcefully against a Hispanic congresswoman from California who planned a convention-week fund-raiser at the Playboy mansion. Gore feared the event would further alienate swing voters, particularly women, who are siding with Bush because of his pledge to promote family values, allies said.

* Talked constantly about hardworking American families and his own family values. Gore and his wife Tipper haven't missed a chance to talk about their marriage.

Knowing he is the target of Gore's pre-convention values blitz, Clinton told ministers Thursday that he made a "terrible mistake" with Lewinsky. Of Gore, Clinton said: "Surely, no fair- minded person would blame him for any mistake that I made."

Advisers for both men say they didn't know in advance that the president would make a direct plea for the vice president's absolution. Gore said he appreciated the president's words.

Yet even Democrats suspect that the vice president was not helped by Clinton's latest mea culpa. It may simply remind voters why they want a change at the White House.

"The best thing that could happen for Gore is if Clinton had just said nothing. Why talk about this three days before the convention?" said Charles M. Oberly III, a former attorney general in Delaware and a Democratic activist.

"I don't know whether it is a good thing, bad thing or neutral thing," said Gore's communications director, Mark Fabiani. "I do know we're determined to stay focused on a positive message and there will be events that occur throughout the campaign -- some of which are good, some of which are bad and others that are neutral. We have no control over them and we can't be diverted by them."

Privately, Gore advisers said they were long since resigned to a political paradox: Clinton is a drag on the Democratic ticket, and yet may be the only person who can help scrub the taint of scandal from Gore. One senior Gore ally compared Clinton to an elephant in the room you can't ignore, can't control and can't ask to leave.

Matters are made worse, a number of Democrats say, by Clinton's busy convention schedule. He will be front-and-center all weekend and again Monday night, when he and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton deliver prime-time speeches.

Six out of 10 voters disapprove of Clinton as a person -- the same ratio who approve of his job performance. Thus, Gore is linking himself to Clinton's public record and Bush is trying to saddle Gore with the president's personal flaws.

After consulting with advisers on how to take advantage of Clinton's remarks, Bush told reporters Friday that the president's conduct "embarrassed the nation" and he said Gore should do more to repudiate it.

"If Al Gore has differences with the president, he ought to say loud and clear what they are," the Texas governor said.

Until Friday, Bush had tread lightly on the Lewinsky matter, promising only to "restore decency and integrity to the Oval Office."

His running mate Dick Cheney warned, "Al Gore will try to separate himself from his leader's shadow. But somehow, we will never see one without thinking of the other."

Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell said the line has resonance in his battleground state.

"Impeachment is one of those issues they don't talk about, even to us pollsters, but every parent who had to explain to their young children about oral sex because they heard it on the news have a real problem with Clinton and therefore with Gore because he was a part of it, if only by supporting him," Mitchell said.

Convention delegate Teresa Barton of Frankfort, Kentucky, said the vice president needs to keep Clinton out of her state. "I think he's been a good president," she said, "but morally he's been inept."

Moral values is important for most voters, finishing a close second to education in most polls.