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Gore's task: It's hard for No.2 to win presidency

Al Gore appears to have it made. Or does he?

He's got most of the Democratic Party's big-money people on his side. And his only opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination so far is Bill Bradley of New Jersey, a mild-mannered former senator who appears unlikely to defeat Vice President Gore.

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Gore is also a central player in an administration that boasts a strong record. The United States has no serious enemies abroad, and the economy is humming along, regardless of who deserves the credit.

"If I were Al Gore ... I'd go right for the big stuff: Crime is down, the economy is up, life expectancy is up, health is better, more women and more African-Americans have more opportunities than ever," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at the American University in Washington.

More and more, Gore is taking on the guise of a shadow president, almost morphing into President Clinton as he increasingly fronts the administration's one-a-day micro-initiatives and other pronouncements. One day he's addressing traffic jams, the next he's talking about controlling livestock runoff in drinking water and defending US policy toward China.

Still, succeeding his boss in the November 2000 election will be no easy task for Gore, even if the economy remains strong. History has shown that sitting vice presidents have a hard time winning the presidency. Many have tried, but only four have succeeded: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and George Bush.

Richard Nixon is unique as a former vice president who tried and failed to succeed his boss, President Eisenhower, then went on to win the presidency on a later try.

Office's inherent limitations

Much of the reason that vice presidents tend to lose has to do with the inherent limitations on the office - they can't outshine the president, or promote their own flashy initiatives. Many vice presidents are probably selected, in part, because of their less-than-charismatic personalities.

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"You couldn't imagine in 1968 that Hubert Humphrey was going to make his campaign about ending the Vietnam War," says Democratic consultant Mark Mellman, referring to the vice president who served under Lyndon Johnson but failed to succeed him.

Gore also faces those nagging opinion polls, the ones that consistently show him losing head-to-head in mock presidential races against Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former American Red Cross chief Elizabeth Dole.

Gore boosters counter that such polls are meaningless, because it's very early in the process and the public knows little about Governor Bush or Mrs. Dole and is just wowed by the new faces on the scene.

But Gore has some weak spots in his public image that could prove challenging as his campaign develops. In-depth polling and focus groups show that while voters say he's strong on character and cares about "people like them," they feel he's weak on leadership.

"The public has a peculiarly unidealized notion of Gore that stems mainly from being vice president," says a Democratic strategist. "If you're vice president instead of president, you can't be as strong and you can't be as tough and you can't be as much of a leader."

Gore, the strategist says, needs to give "some depth and content to people's image" of him.

When former President Bush, father of the Texas governor, was vice president, he faced the same dilemma at this point in his second term in the No. 2 slot. He was down in the polls to a variety of possible Democratic challengers. One magazine cover called him a "wimp."

Issues that count

Bush went on to win the 1988 election - in part, says independent pollster John Zogby, because the Democrats put up a weak opponent, Michael Dukakis.

"When push came to shove, he traded off of Reagan," who was popular, says Mr. Zogby. "Smart political handlers were able to do some good polling and focus groups that showed that people cared about the American flag and patriotism. They were able to paint Dukakis into a liberal corner. In '88, that worked."

For now, presidential scholars say, Gore can do the 1999 version of the same thing, by focusing on issues that affect people's everyday lives.

By talking about traffic jams and drinking water and preserving open spaces, Gore is tapping into issues that people care about, says political scientist Shirley Anne Warshaw, at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

"To win, he has to maintain his visibility, which he's doing," she says. "And he also needs to stay in the center of the political spectrum.... He's highlighting issues that clearly aren't controversial."

Gore's initiatives on traffic, announced last week, are part of a $1 billion budget proposal aimed at improving daily life in the United States. Plans include establishing a national traffic hot line to help commuters. He also wants to help communities develop "smart-growth strategies" that minimize air pollution and suburban sprawl.

Analysts don't expect Gore to make sprawl the signature issue of his campaign. The big issues will come next year.

But don't expect Mr. Clinton just to fade off into the sunset as his presidency winds down. While he wants the Clinton-Gore legacy to live on in a Gore administration, Clinton has his own new campaign to tend to: the post-impeachment effort to rehabilitate his own presidency. That's something he has to do himself.

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