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Is Al Too Good At Passing The Hat?

The Vice President Has A Problem: How To Get Money Without Getting Muddy

TIME Magazine

By Richard Lacayo

TIME, March 3 -- It was the fall of 1995, and the Democratic National Committee had a problem. Faced with the cost of its massive early media strategy, it needed a quick $1 million or so. A senior White House official had a solution: get the President to call some well-padded contributors. At the White House, Bill Clinton was presented with a list of 10 names. But the President, who has an aversion to dialing for dollars, managed to busy himself with other things. The next stop for officials looking for a willing fund raiser for the mini telethon: the office of Vice President Gore. No problem. One hour and 10 vice-presidential phone calls later, the DNC treasury was fat and happy.

Effective fund raising is not a crime, at least not in that instance. But in the hard and fast running of campaign '96, the line between effective and forbidden got ground in the dirt. In the growing mess over Democratic financing for the campaign, Al Gore finds himself with one toe over the line in the matter of the Buddhist temple event and facing plenty of questions to come. And the recent past makes Gore's future tricky. His presidential ambitions for 2000 require him to stay at work in the money game he's so good at. But by doing that he runs the risk of soiling the upright reputation that may be his greatest strength with voters.

Gore's visit last April to a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles is certain to occupy a good part of the forthcoming congressional hearings. His shifting stories about whether he knew it was a fund raiser were followed by the disclosure two weeks ago that his office had been warned by the National Security Council to exercise "great, great caution" toward the proposed visit. The Vice President's office has acknowledged that Gore's senior political aide, David Strauss, discussed the event with the party's fund-raising division.

Despite his stiffness in public, Gore is a born pitchman. Last year he brought the party more than $15 million. "If we needed someone to go to a fund raiser," says a campaign official, "he'd always volunteer." If Gore runs in 2000, many of those donors, their names resting in the personal database that he keeps at the DNC, will be tapped again. During his trip last week to the Los Angeles meeting of the big-spending afl-cio, where he promised new rules requiring all businesses that contract with the Federal Government to meet fair-labor standards, Gore made time for private chats with two significant Democratic Party supporters: supermarket mogul Ronald Burkle and real estate investor Stanley Hirsh. "It's breathtaking how fast and aggressively he's moving," says a Democratic stalwart. Though Gore's aides insist he wasn't asking for donations on this visit, they admit he was laying the basis for a squeeze this year or next.

In dealing with his most productive fund raisers, Gore can be as attentive as a social director at a vacation spa. Alan Kessler, a lawyer from Philadelphia who helped raise $5.5 million last year, is practically a pen pal. When Kessler's wife last gave birth, there was a congratulatory phone call from Gore. When his son was recovering from knee surgery, there was a note. Another note marked the Bas Mitzvah of Kessler's daughter. And when her ninth-grade class visited Washington, Gore arranged a tour of the White House and posed for a group photo.

Though Gore needs money for a presidential race, he also needs clean hands. Plus he has to pre-empt a possible primary challenge from former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who wants to make a signature issue out of campaign-finance reform. Lately Gore has been promoting the idea of requiring broadcast outlets to provide advertising slots, the main thing campaigns spend money on, free of charge to them. No big outlays, goes the reasoning, no need for big fund raising. But on the most important piece of current reform legislation, the McCain-Feingold bill banning "soft money" contributions, Gore has to keep his distance. One reason is that Republicans may walk away from it if they think Gore will boost his chances in 2000 by taking credit for its passage. Another is that Clinton badly wants that same credit for himself.

Whether or not he can attach his name, finance reform may be Gore's best bet for the future. "He'll have a well-funded campaign under any system," says a White House aide. "The better the public feels about the system, the better it is for incumbents like him." By the same logic, if Clinton fails to identify himself soon with successful campaign reform, Gore could be tainted by association even if he doesn't have more sins to confess from '96. Three years from now, that could force him into one of the trickiest political maneuvers since 1968, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey, aiming for the presidency, tried to distance himself from the Vietnam War policies of his own Administration. If Humphrey were still around he would tell you: Compared to the intricacies of that dance, the macarena is simplicity itself.

--Reported by James Carney with Gore and Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington

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