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Al Gore once said it wouldn't happen this way.

He wanted to be president himself. He tried for it, back in 1988, as a U.S. senator from Tennessee, at the tender age of 39.

The day he pulled out of the race, he pooh-poohed being vice president. He wasn't interested.

"I think, incidentally, that George Bush is going to prove again this fall that it is a political dead end," he said.

But Gore was twice contradicted by events. Bush that year became the 14th vice president to move into the White House. And in 1992, Albert Arnold Gore Jr. was elected to the number-two job himself.

After four years on the job, Gore has proved to be one of the most active, influential vice presidents in history _ and not coincidentally, one of the most-often mentioned candidates in his party for the top job in 2000.

So, is he running for president?

"My top three political priorities," Gore answered cautiously at a recent luncheon with reporters. "are to re-elect Bill Clinton in 1996, to re-elect Bill Clinton in 1996, and to re-elect Bill Clinton 1996."

Gore told the parable about the dog who was happily carrying a bone in his mouth when he saw his reflection in a lake. To grab the second bone he thought he saw, the dog opened his mouth and lost the one he had.

"I am not looking beyond this election in 1996, but I appreciate your question," he demurred.

Come on. Isn't the thought at least lurking in his mind?

"Oh, well, if you ask it THAT way..." Gore paused. "I'd have to give the same answer." Grin.

Gore is a deliberate man, at least publicly. He thinks before answering a question and when he starts speaking, each... word... comes... out as though he has given it an extra moment's thought before letting it escape.

But mindful of his tendency to be wooden, Gore has proven deft at escaping the worst fate of a vice president _ becoming the butt of jokes. No one tells more Al Gore jokes than Al Gore.

He is so boring, Al Gore says, that his Secret Service code name is "Al Gore." At the Democratic National Convention, he brought down the house by offering to demonstrate his version of the dance craze called the macarena. After pausing stiffly for a second, he asked, "Want to see it again?"

Despite this alleged stiffness, one of the most interesting things about Gore is his increasing integration of public issues with the private emotional and family lives of Americans.

Tragedy in his own life _ a son's serious accident, a sister's death from lung cancer _ have worked their way into his discussions of how to run the government. Whereas Clinton promised in 1992 to feel our pain, Gore seems to be taking it a step further. Implicit in his words is the need for a public policy based both on the head and the heart.

Along the way he has become a genuine star of the Democratic Party. He has become one of its most popular speakers, after the president and first lady. Crowds dance and cheer as he takes the stage, usually to the bouncy tune of a popular Paul Simon song, "Call Me Al."

A full partnership

Gore was a latecomer to the Clinton campaign when he was chosen as running mate in 1992 (one of the other contenders was Florida's senior senator, Bob Graham). But Clinton has come to rely on Gore more than on any other person, White House aides say.

Gore's office is 18 steps away from Clinton's in the West Wing of the White House. The two often spend much of the morning together; Gore sits in on the president's morning briefings on domestic and foreign policy.

It is common during the day for Clinton to pick up the telephone and ask Gore's opinion; when the president is traveling he sometimes talks to Gore several times during the day, aides say.

Gore also has been a regular in Wednesday-night political skull sessions of the Clinton inner circle. On top of that, the two men have a weekly scheduled lunch, which they try to keep even if events push it late into the afternoon.

Even Dick Morris, Clinton's ex-adviser who was not shy about taking credit for the president's political successes, defers to Gore's influence. "If he had one principal adviser," Morris told CNN recently, "it was the vice president."

The relationship between the nation's top two elected officials has not always been so close. Many vice presidents, especially in the 19th century, had virtually no role in the government, except for ceremonial duties _ the most famous example being attending state funerals.

Their roles have become more prominent in this century, but it was one of FDR's second fiddles, John Nance Gardner, who was quoted as calling the job "not worth a pitcher of warm spit." (Some say the actual quote was slightly more graphic.) FDR kept from his final vice president, Harry Truman, the most vital secret of his presidency, the development of the atomic bomb.

Even among more active vice presidents, there has been a tendency for the administration to break into competing camps. George Bush had his own team, sometimes tugging in a different direction from Ronald Reagan's advisers.

Some of Dan Quayle's advisers, in their turn, often expressed frustration at Quayle's treatment by the Bush White House and the Bush campaign. There is even a touch of distance this year between the campaign staffs of Republican Bob Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp, although the two men talk three times a week, according to their aides.

But for better or worse, Clinton and Gore are nearly synoymous. They are so enmeshed that Clinton chose as his overall campaign manager Peter Knight _ a former Gore aide and longtime friend.

"These two gentlemen have worked hand in hand on everything that has been done in this administration," Knight said in an interview, "and they will be partners in building the future, and the bridge to the 21st century."

Triumph of the wonks

Early in his administration, Clinton put Gore in charge of reforming the federal bureaucracy, a task that he called "reinventing government." More formally, the effort is called the National Performance Review.

Gore plunged into the job with wonkish delight. He even appeared on Late Night With David Letterman, armed with a hammer and a glass ash tray, to demonstrate the ridiculous government rules that existed for buying an ash tray. He therefore became the first vice president in history to break glass on national television.

Gore is listed as the author of a new book titled "The Best-Kept Secrets in Government," which actually is the report of his task force. Among the accomplishments he reports are:

+ A 10-percent reduction in the overall federal workforce, from 2.2-million when Clinton took office to 1.9-million today. It is the smallest federal workforce since the Kennedy Administration. (More than half of that reduction came in civilian employment in the Department of Defense.)

+ The repeal of more than 16,000 pages of federal regulations, and the simplification of another 35,000 pages.

+ The closing of more than 2,000 government field offices, and the elimination of more than 200 federal programs. (The Republicans answer that Clinton has proposed more than 400 new ones, however.)

Gore takes special delight in telling anecdotes about introducing common sense into government.

For years, Jockey International Inc. of Kenosha, Wisc., refused to bid on government work because of ridiculous red tape and specifications. Now, the government is buying Jockey T-shirts, style 9711, out of the catalog, at a great price.

Another example is the telephones used on the bridges of aircraft carriers. Old government rules required $500 telephones that worked even when submerged, after a ship was sunk. Upon review, the task force found no examples of crews hanging around on the bridges of sunken ships to make telephone calls, and today the military buys a $30 unit.

Gore memorializes these accomplishments with a vice presidential "Hammer Award," consisting of a $6 hammer mounted on a plaque. Such details are the scut work of vice presidents, not presidents, but one wonders if Gore remembers that one of his predecessors, Truman, first came to national fame for presiding over a commission that similarly ferreted out government waste.

Tennessee and tobacco

Gore was born March 31, 1948, in Washington, D.C. His father, Al Gore Sr., was a U.S. representative and later a senator from Tennessee. The young Gore was diligent and ambitious: honor student, captain of the football team at his prep school, honors graduate from Harvard.

Like Clinton, who is two years older, Gore had reservations about the Vietnam War. But mindful of his father's political career, among other considerations, the younger Gore enlisted in the Army, where he worked as a military newspaper reporter and saw no combat.

In 1970, Gore married Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson, better known by the nickname her mother had given her as a child _ Tipper. In 1971 Gore came home to Tennessee, working as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean (Mrs. Gore was a photographer for the paper). He was elected to a vacant seat in Congress in 1976, and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1984 to take the place of the retiring Howard Baker.

That was the year that his sister, Nancy, died of lung cancer at the age of 45. Gore spoke movingly about the experience at this year's convention, holding the hall of thousands spellbound:

"She looked up, and from out of that haze, her eyes focused intensely right at me. She couldn't speak, but I felt clearly, I knew, she was forming a question: Do you bring hope? All of us had tried to find whatever new treatment or new approach might help.

"But all I could do was to say back to her, with all the gentleness in my heart, I loved her. And then I knelt by her bed and held her hand, and in a very short time, her breathing became labored, and then she breathed her last breath.

"Tomorrow morning, another 13-year-old girl will start smoking. I love her, too. Three thousand young people in America will start smoking tomorrow. One thousand of them will die a death not unlike my sister's. And that is why, until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."

In a luncheon with reporters the next day in Chicago, Gore spoke at length about why he had chosen to speak so emotionally.

"We have always searched for new understandings through the telling of stories, especially stories that contain the essence of a problem it is time to face squarely," Gore said.

"I really do believe that in our politics and in our personal lives, we are seeing an effort to integrate our emotional lives and our intellectual lives in a more balanced fashion."

Yes, Gore said, he had grown tobacco _ "I did plant it, spray it, cut it, spike it, strip it and sell it." He continued to accept tobacco campaign contributions until 1990. It took many years for the message to sink in, he said.

The national stage

In 1988, Gore ran for president in a crowded Democratic field. He started well, winning seven states in the Super Tuesday primary in March. But he started to fade in subsequent states, and when he did poorly in the vital state of New York, he pulled out of the race.

In 1989, Gore's world changed when the youngest of his four children, Albert, was nearly killed when he was struck by a car. Over his son's months of recovery, friends say, Gore's priorities were transformed.

He turned his energies to writing a book titled Earth in the Balance, in which he called for dramatic changes to protect the earth's environment. He related his personal life crisis involving his son with the crisis faced by the planet.

"For me, something changed in a fundamental way," Gore wrote. "I don't think my son's brush with death was solely responsible, although that was the cataylst.

"But I had also just lost a presidential campaign; moreover, I had just turned 40 years old...

"I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously," Gore concluded. "The voice of caution whispers persuasively in the ear of every politician, often with good reason.

"But when caution breeds timidity, a good politician listens to other voices."