Al Gore's Lucky Break

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Al Gore needed two things last week: a 10-ft. pole to distance himself from Bill Clinton and an issue to distance himself from George W. Bush.

He got both. Showing that he could be his own man was the carefully planned theme of the Vice President's "Love Me for Me" tour, but at an event capping the exercise, the Vice President got a little something his campaign has recently lacked: a lucky break. It came in the form of gun control, the first real fight he can take to Governor Bush of Texas, and a fight that Americans might even watch closely in this prenatal presidential campaign.

In Los Angeles, Gore was already prepared to talk about gun control at the packed gymnasium of Fairfax High School, where a student was shot dead in English class six years ago. But moments before he was to arrive, the House of Representatives voted 280-147 against legislation to restrict access to guns and impose safety locks on them. Gore had found his mojo. "What is the Congress doing?" he asked, his arms whirring. "With your help, I will personally lead the fight to pass [these laws] as President of the United States."

Five weeks earlier, when Republican Senators misplayed a crucial gun-control vote and allowed the Vice President to break the 50-50 tie in the Senate chamber, the moment had been a political gift. House Republicans last week let him keep it. Gore can show his best outraged face at congressional inaction, but privately strategists in his camp are ecstatic. They hope that Gore-the-gun-control-crusader will bore into the lead of front runner Bush, whom they view as vulnerable because he opposes mandatory child-safety locks on guns and supports the right of Texans to carry a concealed weapon. Polls show that the massacre at Columbine High School has increased the size of the majority of Americans who favor gun control. Republican women in particular are shifting because of the tragedy. "It is an issue he intends to keep talking about," says Gore campaign chairman Tony Coelho. "He will let the American people decide which candidate for President will put kids ahead of guns."

Even more delicious, Gore allies point out, was that Bush gave the Vice President a new opening. At almost the same time as Friday's failed House effort, the Governor signed into law a bill that requires a locality to get approval from the state legislature or attorney general before suing a gun manufacturer. Opponents of the law call it the National Rifle Association Protection Act. Bush supporters argue that the act does not interfere with legitimate gun lawsuits but rather curbs trivial legal action. "If Vice President Gore wants to take the side of frivolous lawsuits, we'll take that fight," says Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director.

Most G.O.P. members of Congress, for their part, got what they wanted. Arms-bearing rights were still intact, and an earlier bipartisan maneuver--a vote for tepid gun control (backed by the N.R.A.) joined by 45 Democrats--took some sting out of White House charges that only Republicans were seeking to water down the laws. The House G.O.P. also showed that they could actually pass legislation. Their juvenile-justice crime bill included a few favorites in the culture-war hit parade, notably an amendment that allows states to put the Ten Commandments in the schoolhouse. It was an opportunity for majority whip Tom DeLay, the real power in the House, to turn preacher and fulminate against the "liberal relativism that has hollowed out the souls of so many."

But while DeLay fumes, the Republican Party has a national election to worry about--and a six-seat House margin to protect. Gun control may not play well in G.O.P. strongholds, but it may help Democrats in swing districts, where their polling shows nearly 80% support among independents for last week's most hotly debated gun-control measure: background checks for purchases made at gun shows. No wonder, then, that when a weaker version of gun control passed on Thursday, Democrats gleefully chanted, "Six seats! Six seats! Six seats!"

That's the kind of enthusiasm Gore has had trouble generating in his campaign. Part of the reason is the man with whom he has shared a stage for seven years. That's why, when he was not talking about guns last week, the message was: "I am not Bill Clinton." It was a trickier dance step for the man who had declared Clinton "one of our greatest Presidents" just hours after he was impeached. But Gore was practicing it everywhere last week, in hotel ballrooms and on outdoor stages and in a prime-time two-step with ABC's Diane Sawyer, when he called the President's conduct inexcusable, awful, terrible, horrible. And "the most upsetting thing about it," Gore told reporters in Tennessee, was that Clinton squandered a year as a result of his Lewinsky antics. Gore promised that he would be the one "to make up for that waste of time."

After more than six years in the White House and 23 years in public life, Gore finds himself in the exquisitely odd position of having to introduce himself to the American people. His surveys show he's a hologram, visible but vaporous, or as his pollster, Mark Penn, puts it, "famous, but unknown." Even that may be too generous a reading, given the poll that shows 45% of Americans say they definitely won't be voting for him. The challenge, says Coelho, is to "unshackle yourself from everything else that's going on and become the candidate."

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