Gore Sets Sights on 2000, but Not Officially

SAN DIEGO -- Even as U.S. Vice President Al Gore assiduously promotes the re-election of the Clinton-Gore ticket, America's 45th vice president has all but begun his own bid for the White House four years from now, despite obligatory protestations to the contrary.

Already, top Gore loyalists are deployed throughout the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party apparatus. Along with doing their part to win the current ticket four more years in office, they are ready to pre-empt rivals for the nomination in 2000.

Gore, meanwhile, continues to maintain a high profile for a vice president; he recently headed a U.S. delegation visiting Russia in the wake of its historic presidential election earlier this month.

And increasingly, President Bill Clinton is pushing issues straight out of Gore's agenda, from environmental protection to an array of "family values'' issues that Gore began advocating years ago, while still a senator from Tennessee.

But for now, Gore says his "top three priorities'' are one and the same: Clinton's re-election.

For emphasis, the vice president playfully chanted that mantra three times as his limousine glided through a San Diego neighborhood one recent evening after a fund-raiser that raked in $225,000 for the Democratic Party.

"I'm not doing or saying anything that is directed at a race for president in the year 2000,'' Gore added, "because it's simply premature.''

Or is it?

As Gore's own words and occasional quips reveal, a White House bid of his own seems never far from his consciousness -- or that of his allies. Indeed a "Gore for president'' campaign appears inevitable, whichever way this fall's election goes.

A Clinton win would give Gore four more years to burnish the image that Clinton administration officials have tried to create: Gore as America's most influential vice president.

A defeat still would leave him the favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000 -- a spot he sought in 1988.

Gore says age should not be an issue in this year's campaign, but on the stump he suggests Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole is out of touch, perhaps a subliminal reminder to voters that Dole will soon turn 73.

Gore was less coy three years ago at Dole's 70th birthday party at the Capitol. As Dole held up a "Dole '96'' pin, Gore quipped, "Is this a reference to your age or your ambitions?''

Dole is a convenient foil for the vice president in other ways as well. Next to the former Kansas senator, a notoriously lackluster campaigner, Gore looks positively like the Energizer bunny.

Another Gore campaign asset is his personal conduct and family life, which present a sharp contrast to the endless accusations of scandal and improprieties swirling around the Clintons.

Still, Gore loyalists concede that their man has room for improvement. They worry, for instance, that he has yet to dispel his image as an aloof politician more comfortable with issues that may not connect with most people.

global warming and the information superhighway, say -- than those that do, such as various economic issues.

"If left to his own devices, Bill Clinton would shake hands for 24 hours; Al Gore would rather sit in his room and read,'' said one Gore confidant. "He's just not a natural campaigner.''