Glowing Hillary steals the Gore endorsement show

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VICE-PRESIDENT Al Gore's bid for the White House received its most valuable endorsement so far when the First Lady introduced him as her choice for the presidency.

At a women's rally in Washington held to kickstart Mr Gore's campaign for the top job, Hillary Clinton praised his "strong, forward-looking vision", his "tireless work" on women's and family issues and his "passionate commitment" to education.

Al Gore, she told a rapturous 300-strong audience at the city's Mayflower hotel, has been "out in front for all of us women for the past six years. It is now time for all of us to be out in front for him. He is my choice, and I hope your choice, for the next President of the United States."

Only the barest allusions to Mrs Clinton's own political ambitions were allowed to penetrate yesterday's rally, which was focused firmly on Mr Gore, and the audience was primed not to expect any announcement that would divert attention from the Vice-President. His wife, Tipper, who introduced Mrs Clinton, laid the matter to rest, saying to the loudest applause of the day: "I wish I had the chance this morning to endorse someone for another post, but I can't."

Mrs Clinton is expected to announce that she will run for the New York Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Pat Moynihan next year. But there is concern in the Gore camp that her campaign could siphon off money and media attention from the Vice-President's attempt .

But Mrs Clinton, who seems increasingly to exude the glow of power that so distinguished her husband through his election campaigns, stole yesterday's show, placing some of the more controversial issues, such as abortion, right up front. Mr Gore, she said, had fought "any attempt to abolish a woman's right to choose and he will not let the clock be turned back".

The presidential candidate himself stood looking almost embarrassed by the platform as first his wife then Mrs Clinton sang his praises. The man whom Mr Clinton had told to loosen up and enjoy himself appeared to be wearing a jacket several sizes too big, and his arms hung awkwardly at his sides - until his wife took his left hand in hers.

In a speech that was more relaxed and focused than some of recent weeks, Mr Gore described Mrs Clinton as an inspiring role model and cherished friend and said: "I am so grateful for your endorsement today."

He then set out a programme of priorities friendly to women and the family, which included equal pay, nursery education for all children, reduced class sizes in schools, better-qualified teachers and more "discipline and character education", and a panegyric to his mother, one of the first female lawyers in Tennessee.

Confirming his pro-choice stance, Mr Gore said: "I will always defend a woman's right to choose." His campaign, he said, would reflect "my mother's example, my wife's inspiration and my daughters' brightest hopes".

Conspicuously missing from yesterday's rally was any mention of Bill Clinton. After a nearly disastrous tandem appearance in Texas last week, when Mr Clinton outclassed Mr Gore at every turn, the advice has clearly been to keep Mr Clinton out of Mr Gore's race, at least at this stage. If Mr Gore is to campaign on the themes of vision and values, President Clinton - so much better than Al Gore at projecting vision, so much worse at living his values - is only a liability.