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In a beltway culture obsessed with titles and defined jobs, the wife of the vice president has neither. Her husband is the proverbial heartbeat away, she is the second lady in waiting. Or perhaps in training for a another, bigger campaign in another year. Like a fourth in bridge, the wife of the vice president stands ready.

This week, as the spotlight shifts from the presidential debates to the match between Vice President Al Gore and contender Jack Kemp, some of the shine will be reflected on their wives.

In preparation for the debate, the Times asked experienced campaigners Tipper Gore and Joanne Kemp how they see themselves and define their roles.

So sorry, Tipper Gore can't come to the phone right now.

Busy. Tipper is busy. Traveling, talking to teachers, maybe taking pictures.

Busy getting ready for the big-deal match, the immediate challenge for the Gore family.

Sarah has a soccer game, and Mom has to be there.

The debate? That's this week's challenge.

Last week, on a rather frantic Tuesday, Mrs. Gore was scrambling to keep up with a daily schedule, let alone plans for the future.

"She's a very, very busy woman," said Sally Aman, Mrs. Gore's press secretary in Washington, D.C. "There's not much time to rest up for the debate."

As Vice President Al Gore prepped for Wednesday's match against Republican Jack Kemp, Tipper Gore was balancing public and private duties. Punctuated by brief fly-by campaign trips during the week, Mrs. Gore had a long to-do list at home, which just happens to be the stately vice president's mansion at the Naval Observatory.

Written in ink on the schedule was back-to-school night (Thursday,) young Albert's sports stuff (Saturday) and a birthday party for her mother-in-law (Sunday.) Add the AIDS walk because "she always does that," Aman said.

Such a diverse, undeterred course of action is fairly typical for Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson Gore, known to all as Tipper.

Her mother gave her the nickname when she was a child.

In her public life, Mrs. Gore has had other names: prude, censor and music hater. Frank Zappa once called her a "cultural terrorist" because she led the cause to put warning labels on recordings that contained sexual or violent content.

When Al Gore ran for president in 1988, he joked that his wife was more famous.

These days, it's Tipper Gore's charm that has become a Democratic not-so-secret weapon. With Hillary Clinton campaigning in private functions, Mrs. Gore flies solo.

The busy mom image plays well in Peoria _ and Pittsburgh and Allentown and Memphis, just to mention a few stops on the itinerary.

But the mom image is also genuine. "She's a real mom," press secretary Aman says. As the debate neared, Aman said Mrs. Gore's priority was "to spend some time with her husband and kids."

The Gores have four children, two of whom still live at home.

Like Joanne Kemp, Tipper Gore has adapted her life to the many changes in her husband's career.

Friends say the Gores are unusually close and that he looks to her for advice. In interviews, Mrs. Gore says they have relied on each other, almost since the night they met at Al Gore's senior prom at St. Alban's high school in Washington, D.C. After college _ he went to Harvard, she attended Boston University to follow him _ they married in 1970. As a young married couple, Mrs. Gore told the Los Angeles Times in 1987, they seriously debated moving to Canada to avoid Vietnam. Instead, Al Gore decided to stay and spent six months in Vietnam as an Army journalist.

Although she gave up her career as a photographer when her first child was born, Tipper Gore never abandoned her own high-profile interests.

For the record, Purple Rain by the artist formerly known as Prince was the one record that got Gore going. In 1984, she bought the album for her daughter but listened to it first. Offended by the sexually explicit lyrics, she contacted other parents and eventually started Parents Music Resource Center in 1985. (Her daughter did not get to listen to the album.)

It was the same year Al Gore was elected to his firm term in the United State Senate. In 1988, the year her husband ran for president, Tipper Gore was starting a tour to tout her first book, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. The activism had a price: Despite cutting the promotion short, Mrs. Gore was under constant criticism for attempting to censor records.

By April 1988, when Gore bowed out of the race, the family was ready for some rest. Friends say the Gores became even more determined to focus their energy on their home life after Albert III was struck by a car in 1989 and was hospitalized for three weeks.

For Tipper Gore, the outside world and its attendant demands receded.

"At the time of the accident, I had the equivalent of a full-time job," she told the Washingtonian magazine in 1994. "I was gone at least two days a week. But Albert's illness stopped me cold. I cut back on my schedule and got rid of all my household help. I drove every car pool and cleaned every john and I'm glad I did it. You can learn a lot when you drive a car pool."

The Gores were back in the fray by 1992, when Al Gore was drafted as Clinton's running mate. Car pool duty exchanged for press pool coverage, Mrs. Gore still keeps a tight reign on demands for her private time.

"One of the things she feels very strongly about _ she and the V.P. _ is a balance of family time and work time," says Aman, Mrs. Gore's spokeswoman. Interviews last week, for example, seemed to "encroach on family time."

Tipper Gore's role in the "work time" part of her life has evolved since Clinton came into office. Articles written early in his presidency noted the buoyant Mrs. Gore _ one called her "loosey goosey" _ and her duties to receive visiting delegations that nobody else much wanted to entertain.

Her master's degree in psychology finally provided Mrs. Gore with the cause she needed as the wife of the vice president. As mental health adviser to Clinton's health care reform task force. Mrs. Gore has consistently explored the problems of child welfare, alcoholism and homelessness.

In hearings, she shared the stage with Hillary Clinton, a close friend she has described as "a long-lost sister." The contrast between her style and the seriousness of Mrs. Clinton sparked a Tipper transformation.

"She was not well received by the Democrats," says historian Doris Weatherford of Tampa of Mrs. Gore's early years. "But Tipper Gore is a natural. A real person."

Pollsters noted the positive response Mrs. Gore seemed to generate. With her casual clothes, publicized diets and easy smiles, Tipper radiated warmth. Now, she campaigns alone for the Democrats, often drawing large crowds.

At the Democratic National Convention, she made a splash literally when she jumped into Lake Michigan after a run. "Is my mascara running?" she exclaimed. (It was, the Washington Post confirmed.) She secured a place in prime time to talk about protecting children from violent images in the media _ which a decade later is now a fashionable family value issue _ and to introduce Hillary.

She recently published Picture This: A Visual Diary, a well-received book of her photographs chronicling her life, husband and children.

Mrs. Gore, who admitted that she used to get ill when she introduced her husband at fund raisers, has accomplished much. Historian Weatherford thinks that the Gores have more plans. She says Tipper is in training for Gore for President/2000.

"She certainly has excellent preparation in campaigning to take on the lead role," Weatherford says dryly.

Mrs. Gore couldn't comment. She was getting ready for the trip to St. Petersburg on Wednesday. While in town, her schedule shows she has one free hour, which she'll probably spend with handicapped children.

She may or may not have time to talk.

Like all working moms, Tipper Gore is _ you guessed it _ pretty busy.

Times Researcher Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this story.

All about Tipper

Name: Mary Elizabeth Aitchenson Gore.

Nickname: "Tipper," which her mother nicknamed her as a child.

Age: 48

Met Al Gore: When she was 16 at a high school dance. He was 17.

Married: Just after college, in 1970.

Children: Four: Karenna, 23; Kristin, 19; Sarah, 17; and Albert III, 13.

Home: The vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., and a family farm in Carthage, Tenn.

Hometown: Arlington, Va.

Education: B.A. in psychology, Boston University, 1970; master's degree in psychology, George Peabody College, 1975.

Religion: Baptist.

Work: (Beside the jobs of wife, mother and campaign veteran) Author, photographer and advocate. Photographer for The Tennessean in Nashville in the early 1970s. A founder of Parents Music Resource Center, group that lobbied the music industry to label any product that has sexually suggestive or violent contents.

Hobbies: In-line skating.

Notable: Her two books _ Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated World, 1987 and Picture This: A Visual Diary, 1996.