Is Al Gore Ready for His Close-up?

For better or worse, Bill Clinton has filled the spotlight for eight years. Now Gore must make it his own.

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On the eve of the Democratic convention, the political talk show circuit is hopping. Speculation abounds: Can the Dems, handicapped now by the double whammy of a largely indifferent electorate and a press corps exhausted by the rigors of covering the GOP action in Philadelphia, manage to kindle some kind of excitement? Will voters tune in to meager network coverage? Can Joe Lieberman successfully pass some of his vaunted moral gravitas to his running mate? Will the Clintons leave town before they sap too much of the energy ostensibly meant for Gore?

Count Gore among the lucky ones this week. Rising out of all the generalized questions and hypotheses, a clear directive has crystallized for the vice president: He's got to show the voters who he is, what he plans to do for the country, and, perhaps most importantly, that while he has played a critical role in the successes of the Clinton administration (economic optimism, welfare reform, a diminished deficit), his own administration would remain unscathed by the lying, adultery and deception that so indelibly mark his boss.

Everyone wants to know if Clinton, who's scheduled to speak Monday night at the Staples Center, will pluck that monkey from Gore's back, accept full blame for the Lewinsky scandal, and raise the vice president above such sordid matters. Clinton did take a step in that direction this week, speaking to a church group; he explained that he was still picking up the pieces after what he'd done to his family, and that no reasonable person could possibly associate Gore with his own misstep.

The problem, of course, is that plenty of reasonable people do just that. Gore is stuck with the mantle of the vice presidency, and if he wants to crow about all the things that went right for the country in the last eight years, he's going to have to pay homage to the things that didn't. It's a risky calculation, of course, and its success is dependent on a forgiving electorate. Happily for Gore, while Clinton's personal approval ratings have never recovered from the Lewinsky affair, the President maintains extremely strong job approval scores. And that dichotomy could be Gore's ticket to success: Mention the personal, and then get out, quickly. Move on to the policy, the economics, the future.

No one here seems to think Clinton will bring his own tattered personal reputation into play during his speech on Monday, and after he tipped his hat on the topic last week, he may feel he's bought himself a free pass to the podium, where he'll undoubtedly pay tribute to Gore, and even more certainly, to himself.

Gore is reportedly excited about his trip to L.A. — aides say he's been loosening up since he named Lieberman as his running mate, making jokes at events, even straying from the script on occasion. The vice president is only too aware that this is his big moment; he's poised to make an uncharacteristically aggressive move toward independence. It's a heck of big shadow that's overwhelmed him these last eight years, and it will take an act of unprecedented strength to escape it.