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What role for Clinton in Gore campaign?

For president, the challenge is to help his protg - but

In 1960, when Vice President Richard Nixon was battling John F. Kennedy for the Oval Office, a reporter asked Mr. Nixon's boss what major decisions the vice president had helped to make.

"If you give me a week, I might think of one," said President Eisenhower. For Nixon, who was portraying himself as the most active vice president in American history, the quip cut deep.

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Nearly 40 years later, Al Gore doesn't have to worry about being perceived as a do-nothing vice president. But like Nixon, and all vice presidents who have reached for the nation's political pinnacle, the issue for Mr. Gore is the same: While the president has the potential to help your campaign, he can also hurt it.

When the No. 2 is seeking the No. 1's job, "it's the toughest situation in American politics," says Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution here. "The vice president can't live without the president, but the very nature of the relationship makes it toxic."

The vice president got a blast of that toxin recently, when President Clinton expressed concern about the slow start of Gore's campaign and gave his protg unsolicited advice on the front page of The New York Times. Gore, said Mr. Clinton, should loosen up and just "go out there and enjoy this."

The opener

This week, in their first joint appearance since his political faux pas, Clinton lavished praise on his deputy, who was hosting a Texas event on urban and rural renewal.

But his introductory remarks had the unintended effect of highlighting the differences in style between a personality-plus president and the dull, technocratic deputy. As Mr. Light put it, having Bill Clinton open for Al Gore is like having the Rolling Stones open for Barry Manilow.

To avoid such side-by-side comparisons, Clinton's best use would be to serve the Gore cause in other ways, say political analysts. These include raising money, reminding Americans of their seven years of prosperity, and helping boost voter turnout among African-Americans - as he did for last November's midterm election.

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The Democratic National Committee plans to keep Clinton as a key spokesman on the party's overall issues in 2000, including education, health care, and the vibrant economy.

"The best thing the president can do is to communicate the message ... he's one of the greatest communicators we've got," says Roy Romer, general chairman of the DNC and Colorado governor.

What the president should not do, political observers say, is get mixed up with the Gore campaign itself, because this is the time for Gore to come out from the shadow of his political partner.

According to a March CNN/Time poll, 63 percent of Americans say they need to know more about Gore to decide whether he would make a good president. The vice president hears the message and is just now hitting new themes distinct from Clinton's, including a speech Monday in which he proposed a "new partnership" that would allow the government to subsidize some of the social programs of religious groups.

With friends like these....

Historically, presidents find their own way of helping - or not helping - their vice presidents succeed them. In a diplomatic move, Ronald Reagan held his endorsement for George Bush until after the primaries. Lyndon Johnson actively undermined Hubert Humphrey because the vice president opposed the Vietnam War.

A White House official characterizes the recent Clinton-Gore flap as "overblown," adding, "they have a good relationship." For now, the president will continue on the fund-raising circuit, with any other campaign role "still to be determined."

And Clinton is proving to be a fund-raising draw, pulling in more than $8 million at 16 events so far this year, according to the Democratic National Committee.

Gore can also benefit if Clinton relinquishes the spotlight to him when it's time for the administration to announce good news or promising initiatives. At this week's Texas conference, for instance, Gore unveiled new grants to help poor communities, including $32 million to help clean up contaminated, abandoned industrial sites.

But there's a danger in letting Clinton get too close to the Gore campaign.

The danger of 'Clinton fatigue'

Many political analysts cite "Clinton fatigue" among voters as the reason Gore is trailing Republican rivals Elizabeth Dole and Texas Gov. George W. Bush in early polls. While pleased with the economy, the reasoning goes, Americans are tired of the scandal and modus operandi of the Clinton administration.

A Fox News poll, conducted May 19 and 20, showed 71 percent of respondents said Gore would be more successful in his campaign if he began separating himself from Clinton, rather than praising him as "one of our greatest presidents."

But the choice to separate may not be Gore's. His boss, after all, thirsts for campaigns, runs his presidency like one, and has a vested interest in seeing his legacy confirmed by a Gore presidency.

"It's very difficult to let go. Clinton's got 15 minutes of fame left, and he's losing that to Gore and the first lady [a possible Senate candidate]," says Mr. Light. It will be a challenge to "keep him busy" so he doesn't interfere.

That's not how the DNC's Governor Romer sees it. Clinton and Gore have "different assignments," he says. The president doesn't need to be "kept on the farm." He'll have plenty to do delivering the Democratic message.

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