Can Al Turn Janet's Gift to His Advantage?

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Luckily for Al Gore, Janet Reno is one woman who never, ever changes her mind. Because it could have been a real bounce killer.

In matter-of-fact boilerplate that would have made Alan Greenspan proud, the attorney general declined once again Wednesday to appoint an independent counsel to look into the ways Gore filled his and Bill Clinton's coffers during the '96 campaign. No Buddhist temple. No White House coffees. No more "iced-tea Al" and those bathroom breaks. The probe, going nowhere, will continue that same route in-house.

"Further prosecution is not likely to result in a prosecutable case under applicable criminal law and standards for prosecution... I've concluded that there is no reasonable possibility that further investigation would produce evidence to warrant charges." And so forth. She even called Robert Conrad, the grumbly aide whose leak reignited this mess in July, "an excellent prosecutor" — twice.

And just like that, she took an election-season vacation.

Where does this leave Gore? Last week the "own man" veep stuck out his chin on campaign finance reform and placed a big bet with independents that some sort of association with McCain's magic name will overcome Gore's own reputation for unrelenting greed in the pursuit of election funds. Republicans call that hypocrisy; Gore will try to sell it as part of his substance-over-style package: Never mind the past, here's what I'm going to do.

He's seized the initiative and a lead in the polls — will he get the benefit of the doubt? Even what passes for the high ground in a McCain- and Bradley-less fight? Well, Gore will need some serious political tiptoes to pull it off, but luckily his most strident critics are already voting Republican. And luckily, for disgusted undecideds suspicious of whether a former coffee-giver-in-chief can change the system, the alternative this year is George W. Bush, who doesn't seem to think there's much wrong with the system in the first place.

Gore might want to come up with better explanatory sound bites than "not abandoning the battlefield," and "everybody does it." He might want to start convincing us that if elected and placed in the fund-raising catbird seat, he'll actually use his power to reduce his reelection chances. That he won't pull a Torricelli on us, and back McCain-Feingold right up until it actually has a chance to pass.

If it doesn't work, he won't be able to blame Janet Reno.