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When use of government jets becomes a campaign strategy

Al Gore and Hillary Clinton both stand to benefit from election laws on

In one way, Al Gore's White House connection is like a ball and chain around his candidacy. In another, it could help him soar - literally.

Come spring, Mr. Gore is counting on Air Force Two to shuttle him from coast to coast, keeping him in the headlines right when he is expected to have few campaign dollars to finance his race. By traveling on the White House aircraft, he'll be able to pass the bill to the American taxpayer, rather than to his cash-starved campaign.

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The strategy, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) rules, is legitimate, as long as the vice president's forays are strictly for official, administration business. One whiff of a campaign speech, and he'll have to reimburse the federal government at the cost of first-class tickets for himself and his traveling aides.

But even if the vice president abides by the rules and mentions not one word about his candidacy, the mere visibility is expected to help his campaign - and conserve cash. It's a point not lost on Democratic opponent Bill Bradley, who criticized Gore's travel strategy last week.

"How do you distinguish official business from campaign-related activity? There are very significant gray areas here," says Michael Traugott, a political science professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Use of government aircraft - and incumbency perks such as staff and communications - is a perennial election issue covered by FEC rules. But it's receiving double scrutiny this time because both the first lady and the vice president are running in high-profile races, with the White House infrastructure as an advantage. Also, the extent to which Gore may have to rely on official travel sets his case apart.

Challenged by the initial costs of a sprawling campaign staff and the unexpectedly strong showing by his competitor, the Gore campaign has less cash than Mr. Bradley. Assuming he continues his fierce battle, his war chest could be severely depleted by the time early primaries are over in March. That would leave a long dry spell until the August convention when, if he were the nominee, he'd collect $63 million in federal election funds.

One way through the drought is for the administration to send the vice president out on government business - dispensing grants, touting achievements, and marketing its programs. That's exactly what was agreed in recent meetings between Gore aides and Cabinet officials.

"It should be no surprise that, once we get through the primary process in early spring, he would do many things with his official vice-president hat on," Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said recently.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn't face the same conditions as the vice president because, as a Senate candidate, she can spend an unlimited amount on her campaign. The only requirement is that she report her expenses and reimburse the government for campaign travel - again, at the rate of first-class airfare. Her first reports are not due until next year, and her campaign has declined to release them publicly, although she's come under scathing attack from Republicans for her many trips to New York in US military jets.

The Republican National Committee estimates that each New York jaunt costs taxpayers roughly $20,000 and that reimbursement at the first-class-ticket rate doesn't come close to covering the entire cost. Republican Congressman John Sweeney of New York took aim at this issue with an "Air Hillary" provision in the House campaign-finance reform legislation this fall. It requires candidates to reimburse taxpayers for the full costs associated with travel, but campaign-finance reform never made it through Congress this year.

Mrs. Clinton's campaign rightly points out that some travel costs are required by the Secret Service and can't be viewed as optional, says Ian Stirton, FEC spokesman. The same holds true for the vice president.

The first lady and vice president are by no means the only candidates to face criticism for their use of official aircraft, which stand at the ready and rarely face delays.

In his reelection campaign, President Clinton caught heat for the same thing, and after a certain point, reimbursed the government regardless of whether or not the trip included official business. Ronald Reagan was forced to repay the government after he slipped up in an "official" 1984 speech in Chicago by mentioning his just-captured nomination. In 1988, on the other hand, then Vice President George Bush did little official travel after March.

In the end, says Mr. Traugott, the press and the opposition party will hold candidates' feet to the fire and prevent abuses.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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