Vice President Al Gore’s shellshocked supporters are trying to regain their footing in a mine field of controversy that has tarnished his image and threatens his presidential prospects.
They were blindsided when Attorney General Janet Reno opened a review into fund-raising calls Gore made from the White House, an inquiry that could lead to the appointment of a special prosecutor.
“This past week was certainly not a good one for the vice president,” Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Sunday.
During the 1996 presidential campaign, Gore called at least 46 Democrats to solicit contributions. Six donations totaling $120,000 ended up in party accounts that are off-limits to such large contributions, a potential violation of campaign finance law.
Gore says he broke no rules, but many Democrats are braced for the appointment of a special prosecutor. Because the prosecutors have wide latitude, such a probe could haunt Gore through the 2000 campaign.
Republicans are adamant that Reno has no choice but to name an independent counsel, and warn that she could even face impeachment if she fails to do so. “If she does not go forward,” Lott said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” “we would have to act in some responsible way.”
Supporters worry that such an investigation could scare off donors, robbing Gore of his biggest advantage in 2000.
David Axelrod, a Chicago-based media consultant for Democrats, said Gore at this point has been “wounded, but it’s not a hit to the main engine.”
“A special prosecutor would come closer to hitting a main engine,” Axelrod said.
Some allies worry that a special prosecutor could kill Gore’s presidential prospects outright. Already, there are signs of damage.
A poll in Friday’s Los Angeles Times suggested that 34 percent of Americans had a favorable impression of the vice president compared with 59 percent for President Clinton, a sign that the campaign finance scandal is hurting Gore more than his boss.
A Time/CNN Poll released Friday indicated that 44 percent of Americans considered Gore’s fund-raising activities inappropriate and 60 percent thought an independent counsel should investigate. In a poll taken by ABC on Wednesday, less than half the respondents thought Gore was honest enough to be president.
Republicans, who are urging Reno to appoint a special prosecutor, stand to gain: Many believe the GOP’s road to the White House would be smoother without Gore. But Democratic hopefuls such as House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt also would be helped if the investigation damages Gore.
“The presumption a few weeks ago was that Gore was a prohibitive favorite - impregnable in this race,” Axelrod said. “A few bricks have been kicked loose from that foundation.”
Gore supporters, unaccustomed to the scandal’s spotlight, were caught off guard by the fund-raising maelstrom.
Some Clinton aides blame not only Gore, but his staff, for a poor performance months ago when his role in the fund-raising effort was first revealed.
In a news conference that Gore’s aides now concede was a near-disaster, the vice president argued weakly that “no controlling legal authority” barred him from raising cash from the White House.
Gore’s aides, for their part, are angry at the media for tough treatment of Gore and frustrated with Democratic lawmakers for not doing more to defend the vice president.
The controversy centers on contributions Gore solicited from the White House that ended up in a “hard money” account subject to strict limits. Aides say Gore assumed the money went to an unregulated “soft money” account. “Hard money” contributions can be used to directly benefit candidates; there are no limits on “soft money” contributions used for broader party-building activities.