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Al Gore in 1996. (AP)

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Reno Holds Power Over Vice President's Prospects

By John F. Harris and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 9, 1997; Page A04

Long before Vice President Gore gets a chance to face voters in the year 2000, he finds himself in the precarious position of being judged by an electorate of one: Attorney General Janet Reno.

Reno's staff is in the midst of reviewing whether Gore's 1996 fund-raising activities – which have been subject to a cloudburst of negative publicity over the past two weeks – raise enough questions to merit further investigation under the independent counsel law.

It will be Reno's decision whether to recommend appointment of an outside prosecutor, a variety of Washington political hands in both parties said yesterday, that will answer the critical question for the Clinton administration's heir apparent: Is Gore simply bumping through an unpleasant stretch of bad political weather or has he flown into a career-threatening crisis?

Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., a Democratic lobbyist and fund-raiser, contended that the Senate campaign-finance hearings will have little long-lasting consequences for Gore. "You spin it and it's over," he said, adding that most voters will dismiss the allegations as mere politics "because it's Republicans versus Democrats."

Conversely, "an independent prosecutor looking at each violation of law, with a lot of money [to conduct an inquiry], that is a different matter," Boggs said. Not only would Gore's entire fund-raising network be subject to questioning, but, on a much broader basis, an independent investigation fundamentally "interferes with your life."

"It's hard to run for president with an independent counsel running around," said one veteran Democratic operative sympathetic to Gore. "People don't want to vote for someone who could be facing an indictment."

This person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, argued that the allegations against Gore are trivial and are being deliberately pumped up by vindictive Republicans. Even so, the operative added, "This is going to guarantee some heavy primary opposition no matter what happens."

Gore advisers maintain the criticism the vice president has taken for making telephone calls to contributors from the White House and for attending a political event last year at a Buddhist temple is unfair. Gore argues that the telephone calls – the issue the Justice Department is examining – were legal, although he has pledged not to make such calls in the future. And while the vice president said it is now clear the event was "finance-related," he and his staff said he did not know at the time that its main purpose was fund-raising.

They chalk up the current political thumping as a predictable part of the process for a presidential contender. "You can't have a long career in modern politics without going through some turbulence, but he'll come out of this fine," said Robert Squier, Gore's longtime media consultant.

Gore's staff took heart from a CNN/USA Today poll that suggested the vice president retains a large measure of public confidence. Asked if Gore was "honest and trustworthy," 64 percent said yes, while 25 percent said no. The equivalent numbers for President Clinton were 53 percent yes and 42 percent no. They also showed that among Democrats Gore is far ahead of potential rivals such as Jesse L. Jackson or House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) as the choice for the nomination in 2000.

Republican lobbyist Tom Korologos, who advised Edwin Meese III while he was nominated for attorney general and the subject of a special prosecutor investigation, said, "It's a debilitating experience. It knocks you off your feet; it knocks you into a cocked hat. You become consumed by this damned thing."

Referring to the prospect that a special prosecutor might be appointed to probe Gore, he asked: "How can he go out and raise money? How can he go out and give speeches? How can he be a politically viable candidate in whatever cattle calls the Democrats might hold? You watch and see, a governor or two will bounce in [the presidential race]. It could wipe out a whole year on him, and he ain't got a year."

Gore would not be the first person to seek the presidency with a prosecutor on his trail. While George Bush, in his role as vice president, was not the official subject of the Iran-contra investigation, the controversy was a nagging issue in his 1988 campaign, and prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh later announced damaging allegations about his role. And Clinton won reelection in 1996 despite the existence of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's inquiry.

But some Republicans said Gore has already sustained political damage. The televised images of his appearance at the Buddhist temple are likely to find their way into TV ads aired by opponents. And his stilted defense of the phone calls at a news conference last March – he repeated over and over that there was "no controlling legal authority" barring such calls – has weakened his image for ethical rigor. "The controversy goes to the heart of his effectiveness as a candidate, it undermines his earnest, clean image, and it undermines it in a very visual way," said GOP strategist Edward W. Gillespie.

One Democrat who worked on Clinton's presidential elections said the biggest problem for Gore may be a certain awkwardness when the spotlight is on. Gore associates said he has privately acknowledged that his "no controlling legal authority line" was a mistake, but this person said the biggest concern was the "mind-set and psychology" that would lead him to resort to such a phrase in the first place.

"Clinton's at his best when [political problems] are at their worst, and it appears that Gore is the opposite," this Democrat said.

Some Democrats said Gore compounded his political problems by first saying he made solicitations on "a few occasions." Last month, Gore aides acknowledged that it was 10 occasions that Gore had solicited funds from 46 donors and called some 30 others to ensure that they delivered on pledges.

Reno previously had said that no independent counsel review was warranted for Gore because his White House telephone solicitations were for unregulated "soft money," which benefits political parties, and the relevant federal laws concern only "hard money," which benefits individual candidates. But she was forced to reassess last week after reports that some of the money Gore raised was moved by DNC staff into hard-money accounts.

Reno announced that her staff would conduct a 30-day review to see if more investigation into whether there is credible evidence suggesting Gore broke the law is needed. If so, a 90-day Justice Department investigation will begin, after which Reno would decide whether to ask a judicial panel to appoint an independent counsel. Such prosecutors in the past have expanded their areas of inquiry, often taking years to finish their work.

Some administration officials said the vice president, who has been exquisitely sensitive to any challenge to his integrity, is becoming more philosophical about his political travails. "He had a bad week," said one White House aide. "You can't run for president without having some bad weeks.

"And if you are going to have a bad week, this was probably the right one," the aide added, referring to last week's deluge of publicity over the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster, agreed Gore "is the luckiest man in America."

The prospect of a special prosecutor is a mixed blessing, Fabrizio said. "It can go both ways. If they find something, you are dead. If they find nothing, then you are Saint Albert, not Prince Albert."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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