. ASHINGTON -- The storm over his campaign finance practices has thrust Al Gore into what his advisers concede is by far the most perilous moment of his political career, leaving his aides scrambling to contain the damage. The growing nervousness results from the announcement last week that Janet Reno, the attorney general, is reviewing whether the vice president's fund-raising activities may have been improper for such a high-ranking official. The inquiry could lead to the appointment of a special prosecutor. His troubles were only compounded this week by fresh disclosures that Gore may have been more immersed in fund raising than he has acknowledged, as well as the disclosure of memorandums suggesting that Gore could have known and should have known that some of his solicitations from the White House were not permitted on federal property. Mounting a drive to keep the fallout to a minimum, Gore's top aides and closest advisers around the country have begun holding conference calls every morning to plot strategy for reacting to the disclosures and, as one participant put it, 'get information from outside the bunker' of the White House.
While the 15- to 20-minute calls were described as businesslike, another person who takes part observed that some people on the line are always 'jittery and over-reactive.' The vice president's aides are so sensitive about the political consequences of the current allegations that they have made special efforts to try to root out anti-Gore leaders to the press in the White House. The controversy has also led to some finger-pointing among Gore's advisers over whether his office had been too slow at first to make public the details of his fund-raising practices and then had gone to the other extreme by releasing too many documents at a briefing last week.' Nothing like this has ever happened to the vice president during his career,' said Roy Neel, an adviser to Gore for nearly two decades and his first chief of staff in the White House. 'He hasn't had damage control to deal with anything of this order.' A handful of recent surveys found that Gore's reputation has been tarnished by the controversy. In a Los Angeles Times poll published Friday, only 34 percent of the American public reported a favorable impression of the vice president, compared with 59 percent for President Clinton.
Several of Gore's advisers said that while they had thought they could put the hearings behind them, they now believed that there was a strong possibility that Ms. Reno would decide that there were enough questions to merit the appointment of an outside prosecutor. If that happened, they said, campaign finance questions could occupy the vice president for the entire three years preceding his bid for the presidency in 2000. His advisers are already discussing the possibility that he will have to hire a criminal lawyer.
Some White House officials said they were concerned that Gore's troubles would cause tensions in what has been a singularly amicable relationship between his staff and the president's. In particular, some of Gore's advisers said they feared that if an outside counsel was picked -- one who would probably also investigate the president -- Clinton's advisers would blame the vice president. But officials said Clinton had instructed his aides to put up a united front and defend Gore. In a sign of that effort, Gore's staff has increasingly turned for help from Lanny Davis, the White House special counsel whom Clinton has relied on for dealing with the Whitewater and campaign finance inquiries. Only weeks ago, many of Gore's advisers had believed that they had weathered the worst of the controversies about the vice president's attendance at a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple and his solicitations for donations from the White House. Many of Gore's closest friends and aides, most of them speaking only on condition of anonymity, said the vice president was trying not to become too rattled but was still unnerved by the attacks on his integrity.
One White House official close to Gore put it this way: 'This thing is out of control, and it's really hurting him. Who likes to see a person you really respect go through this? There are real human stories here.' Robert Squier, Gore's longtime media consultant, said: 'I don't think he's panicking, but it's very hard not to be frustrated because he really believes that he has done nothing wrong.'s quiet said he had teased Gore on one recent morning for channeling his pent-up stress into 'a humongous number of pushups.' 'I think that's smart,' he said. 'The best thing you can do if you feel people are being unfair to you is to take it out on your own body.' Gore has pressed ahead with a full schedule of public appearances. But the vice president -- whose aides had often complained that he did not draw more press attention -- has begun to stay clear of national reporters. He declined to be interviewed for this article. In an interview with WMU R-TV in Manchester, N.
H. , last week, Gore appeared calm and insisted that 'it will be fully shown that what I did is legal and appropriate.' He also said he had 'no plans' to testify before the Senate committee investigating campaign finance abuses. Some advisers have observed that Gore has seemed unusually pumped up in his recent speeches, as if to defy the notion that he was being brought down by the controversy. But while Gore has stayed upbeat in public, some aides described themselves as having a bunker mentality.
At a meeting in the ornate vice presidential ceremonial room on one morning this week, Ronald Klain, Gore's chief of staff, sought to reassure his staff. But it was hardly something to cheer about: He told his aides that they had reacted to the accusations against Gore last week far better than they had reacted when the first revelations had come to light early in the year. (Klain, by coincidence, was a top aide to Ms. Reno before joining the Gore staff.
He emphasized, however, that neither he nor anyone 'in this office would speak to the attorney general about a pending investigation.' ) Already, the disclosures have upended Gore's strategy of quietly tending to Democratic constituent groups and taking on more visible tasks for the president while not being conspicuous about his candidacy in 2000. Aides, including Klain, who only days ago would not acknowledge publicly that Gore was running for president, are now explaining that he has become a target because he is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.' He's going through what all presidential front-runners go through,' Klain said. 'His political opponents, obviously, are trying to do what they can to change his front- runner status.' Gore's defensive crouch marks a significant turn, given that for four years he was widely lauded as one of the most influential vice presidents in modern times. Searching for a positive spin on Gore's predicament, one White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: 'It was inevitable that the Boy Scout image would get cracked. The only question was when he would have to go through the rip-'em-up, tear-'em-apart ritual.' Complicating the situation for Gore is the level of focused criticism from his opponents in both parties and from pundits, the kind of criticism that only presidents, and presidential candidates in the heat of a campaign, are prepared for. Gore lacks a large enough staff to respond to the furor and, unlike the president, he cannot easily shift public focus to other issues to deflect attention from his own difficulties.
Gore's advisers emphasize that he is in the best position to raise the millions of dollars it takes to run for president. And they contend that most voters do not seem too concerned about his fund-raising activities -- and will not be concerned in 2000. But some of those same advisers remarked that the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, had at least helped divert some press attention from Gore's fund-raising practices. Much of the criticism toward Gore, and the subject of debate among his advisers, has been over how he and his staff have responded to the accusations.
Gore and his aides have at times provided ammunition for his critics by making statements that play down the vice president's involvement but that later have to be amended. One Gore adviser said, for example, that it might have been a mistake for Charles Burson, Gore's counsel, and other aides to hold an extensive press briefing last week on documents that were to be disclosed at the campaign finance hearings. The adviser said the briefing had been intended to show that Gore had done nothing wrong but that it had instead led to hard-edged coverage that 'hyped up the interest rather than dampened it down.' Another Gore adviser said of the briefing last week, 'There may be second guessing.' Lorraine Voles, Gore's communications director, acknowledged that the vice president had at times seemed to be in a no-win situation.'s ome times in our efforts to be responsive, we may not have been as careful about dotting all our i's and crossing all our t's as we should have been,' she said. 'The entire office has been as cooperative as we can with the committee, and we " re trying to deal with answering hundreds of press calls on the matter -- on things that happened months and months before.'.