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Al Gore: Front and Center

By Claire Shipman/CNN

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WASHINGTON (Feb. 11) -- Vice President Al Gore was front and center Tuesday, first at the president's elbow touting campaign finance reform, then soloing as chief White House briefer after the first, post-inaugural sit-down with congressional leaders. And the spotlight at center stage for this activist veep is going to get brighter. The year 2000 looms.

But presidential politics is certainly not something the vice president likes to talk about, as he made plain to CNN on a recent swing through Chicago with the Russian prime minister. "It all boils down to one simple responsibility: to do everything I can to help Bill Clinton be the best president he can possibly be," Gore said.

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And indeed, even the professionals on the other side agree that should be Gore's primary mission. William Kristol of the conservative Weekly Standard says, "For the great majority of voters, it's one team, and if Clinton's popular, Gore's popular; if Clinton's unpopular, Gore's unpopular."

Still, that reality isn't slowing down the careful laying of groundwork.

Take a look at the second-term positioning of Gore's troops: Franklin Raines is budget director. Andrew Cuomo is secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Steve Grossman is the Democratic Party's national chair. Leon Fuerth, Gore's national security advisor, has been invited to sit on the president's exclusive "principals' committee," joining the CIA director and the secretaries of state and defense.

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CNN has learned that Gore is also getting strategy memos from key members of the Clinton-Gore re-election effort. One outlines two areas that need work: The lack so far of a coherent Gore message -- an Al Gore who projects solidly to voters -- and the need to strengthen party ties.

Gore has been working the party angle hard, pumping up constituencies, especially labor. He heads to California next week for a high-profile AFL-CIO conference which a potential rival, Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), is also attending.

Gore aides say the Democratic base isn't a worry, but on the question of Gore's image, they plainly admit what the No. 2 doesn't like to talk about: that he's been working hard to shed his stiff demeanor for months, with some success, they say.

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"I applaud that," says Democratic consultant Bob Squier. "I think that's a good thing. Because a lot of us who know him very well, privately, have always been frustrated about the fact that people on the other side of the camera didn't really know the same Al Gore that we knew."

But even if Gore can loosen up on television, even if his boss has a good second term, he's still got to come through the Democratic fund-raising controversy relatively untarred.

And then of course, there's that most important election factor: the economy. Right now, the Clinton economic team is predicting smooth sailing through 2003. Gore is hoping they're right.


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