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Clinton must play second fiddle to Gore at 2000 convention

President's role is to step away from the spotlight

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Bill Clinton faces one of the most daunting, most difficult tasks of his long public life on the eve of the 2000 Democratic National Convention. Come next Tuesday, he'll have to relinquish the spotlight he has relished for so long, and give up his position as the figurehead of his party to his protege, Vice President Al Gore.

The Democrats' political fortunes in 2000 will depend on it.

Clintons
President Clinton, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and daughter Chelsea arrive in Los Angeles, Friday  

The president and the first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, are both penciled in to address the party convention on its first night -- this coming Monday -- allowing the two of them a significant amount of prime-time exposure, though only Mrs. Clinton is running for office this year.

Then, for Mr. Clinton, the curtain comes down. With the opening of Tuesday's convention sessions, all Democratic attention must focus on Vice President Al Gore -- Al Gore the presidential candidate; Al Gore the new face of the party; and Al Gore the individual.

Gore's links to Clinton will have to be minimized, even neutralized, as he accepts his party's nomination later in the week and then hits the road to campaign against Republican nominee George W. Bush in the three months leading up to the November general election.

His associations with Clinton, observers and advisors alike are saying, are doing him great damage. His double-digit deficit to Bush in many national polls can arguably be traced to Clinton's devastating dalliance with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the ensuing impeachment drama, and the resultant calls from conservative quarters for a restoration of "honor and dignity" to the White House.

That behavioral miscue on the president's part haunts the vice president as he struggles to gain ground on Bush, and with the pivotal convention just three days away, it refuses to die.

Before stepping into the background, Clinton is going to have to find a muted, solemn way of driving a stake into the heart of the controversy. Saying nothing more might be a good start.

The confession -- a help or a hindrance?

Clinton made a stab Thursday at cleansing Gore of the misfortune of association, telling an audience in South Barrington, Illinois, that the vice president was in no way responsible for his moral fall from grace.

"He doesn't get enough credit for what we did together that is good, and surely no fair-minded person would blame him for any mistake that I made," Clinton told a gathering of 4,500 ministers just outside of Chicago.

Gore and Lieberman
The Democrats' political fortunes in 2000 depend on Gore, left, and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, capturing the spotlight at the Democratic National Convention  

Clinton and Gore have both long insisted that Gore deserves just as much credit as Clinton has received for the booming economy and increased rate of job creation brought about in the course of the president's eight-year tenure.

Gore, Clinton has said, has been perhaps the most participatory vice president in the nation's history. He has served as a close advisor and policy drafter in the White House, Clinton has reported, and has wielded significant intellect and influence in the shaping of administration economic and social policies.

But even the Gore organization wants to keep a lid on the Lewinsky issue and Clinton's expressions of regret and spiritual rebirth.

In Pennsylvania on Friday, Gore told Fox News that he appreciated the gesture on Clinton's part, but hinted that it probably wasn't necessary at this crucial moment in the life of his campaign.

"He's said it before," Gore said. "I think that he also went on to say that this election, as all elections, is about the future and not the past and I very much agree with that."

But Gore's communication's director Mark Fabiani expressed exasperation Friday with the president's remarks, calling his resurrection of the issue -- well intentioned as it may have been -- a "distraction."

"We need to stay focused on the positive Gore message. We can't be distracted by things that are out of our control," Fabiani said.

The importance of being unobtrusive

Clinton may quickly learn a valuable lesson in the wake of this latest bit of soul baring -- a lesson similar to one meted out to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who on occasion was overcome by the urge to ask forgiveness for his personal shortcomings, much to the chagrin of many of his GOP brethren.

In Gingrich's 1998 book, "Lessons Learned the Hard Way," the then-speaker sought to provide a candid account of the things he had learned about political conduct, working with others, and about himself, in his first two and a half years as head of the House Republican majority.

The book was apologetic at points. In its pages, Gingrich rehashed portions of his lengthy battles with the House Ethics Committee and his early efforts as a backbencher to oust former Democratic Speaker Jim Wright, and he expressed regret for complaining publicly about being made to exit from the rear of Air Force One after a trip to the Middle East.

Gingrich said he had many regrets, and might have conducted himself differently in some circumstances.

Clinton
President Clinton contemplates a response during an interview with Senior Pastor Bill Hybels at the annual Leadership Summit in South Barrington, Illinois, Thursday  

Cut to later that year: The Republicans are nearly routed in mid-term elections, losing a hearty chunk of their majority in the lower chamber. Gingrich is targeted from within and without as a problem -- and some of his once loyal deputies are caught plotting to oust him from power.

His confessions, some say, transmit weakness. His inability to control his tongue in other situations, they also say, needs to be reined-in.

At the end of the year, Gingrich relinquishes the speakership and resigns his House seat, taking the fall for the Republicans stunning defeat at the polls. The Lewinsky scandal, and impeachment proceedings under way in the House, had taken its toll on the people who had declared they were intent on getting to the bottom of Clinton's dealings in the Oval Office -- and who had declared that their duty to restore accountability to the nation's highest office.

Gingrich's lesson? Keep quiet about your foibles, and still your tongue when you are angry about something.

While Clinton doesn't stand to lose his office prior to the January inauguration of the next president, he could well stand to take a page from Gingrich's book of experiences.

His Monday night speech, White House sources indicated this week, may contain more references to the Lewinsky drama, though early drafts reportedly mentioned nothing of the sort.

And, while Clinton engages in some of his favorite activities in Southern California in the two days leading to his convention appearance -- most notably a series of Hollywood fund-raisers for his wife and his presidential library -- he'll have to keep quiet about his personal opinion of Bush, whose father he trounced in 1992.

Speaking at a New England fund-raiser on the eve of the Republican National Convention two weeks ago, Clinton mocked the younger Bush as a child of privilege. His remarks were coolly received across the political spectrum, and since, he has not attempted to take on the "attack dog" role often accorded to departing two-term presidents intent on seeing their vice presidents take their place.

Indeed, Clinton's days as a rousing, provocative convention speaker -- begun with his legendary, lengthy 1988 convention address -- have likely come to an end. He cannot go on the attack for Gore, and the Gore campaign most likely will not want him to.

The Republicans, after all, seem to have scripted their responses to either situation. Should Clinton speak out, they'll only need to harken back to GOP vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney's convention declaration:

"Mr. Gore will try to separate himself from his leader's shadow. But somehow, we will never see one without thinking of the other," Cheney said in his acceptance speech.

If Clinton plays it safe, the Republicans will try to place the onus on Gore to build a successful line of separation in the public's eye -- as Bush hinted aboard his campaign jet Friday.

"If he's got a problem with what went on in the past, he ought to explain what it is," Bush said. "I think the vice president ought to speak out on it."