Can Gore's Tin Man win heart of party?

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The Independent US

There could be no more irresistible political farewell. Like the flawed hero of his own Hollywood movie, President Bill Clinton prepared to address the Democratic Party faithful last night on a wave of high emotion, rhetorical magnetism, mixed feelings about his glaring personal shortcomings, and extravagant praise for the man who would succeed him, Vice-President Al Gore.

There could be no more irresistible political farewell. Like the flawed hero of his own Hollywood movie, President Bill Clinton prepared to address the Democratic Party faithful last night on a wave of high emotion, rhetorical magnetism, mixed feelings about his glaring personal shortcomings, and extravagant praise for the man who would succeed him, Vice-President Al Gore.

Here, in the balmy, dream-fuelled southern California that he has made his spiritual home, every bit as much as Arkansas or the White House, Mr Clinton could play to his favourite audience of movie stars, political wheeler-dealers, billionaire philanthropists and party fund-raisers.

Already, over the weekend, he had been reduced to tears by the generous tributes of the Hollywood glitterati. Now it was his turn to return the favour, and use his considerable charisma and rhetorical skills to propel the Democrats forward and stir their excitement about the new race for the White House.

"You give Al Gore and Joe Lieberman eight years and you will see that the best is yet to be," Mr Clinton told a group of party donors at a brunch meeting - the line he was widely expected to take on the convention floor.

But if Los Angeles is Mr Clinton's town, it is hardly Mr Gore's. The flighty, fiercely competitive, morally ambiguous atmosphere may be a West Coast mirror of the Clinton White House, but it doesn't suit the earnest, buttoned-down, somewhat prudish temperament of the Gore-Lieberman ticket. In the Emerald City, it will inescapably seem that the Wizard of Oz is handing over to the Tin Man.

The tension between Mr Gore and the Clintons, both Bill and Hillary, has been palpable and much remarked upon ever since they entered the White House eight years ago. Just in the past few days, as the Clintons have coasted gleefully from the Hollywood Hills to the Malibu beachfront to be fêted and showered with attention at every turn, the Gore camp has had to worry about being upstaged.

Last night, Mr and Mrs Clinton's speeches were expected to be "amazingly gracious" about the Vice-President. But that did not alleviate the risk that, just by opening his mouth and smiling his infectiously boyish smile, Mr Clinton would put his putative successor in the shade. The US media has talked of little else - dredging up the misgivings Mr Gore had right from the start about Mr Clinton's slipshod sexual morality and Mrs Clinton's overweening ambition.

Indeed, Mr Gore's aides have characterised Hillary as something of a Wicked Witch of the East for daring to run for the Senate in New York - an "act of indescribable selfishness", according to one Gore official, that risks sapping attention and funds from theWhite House race. The fact that the Clintons have spent their time in California raising money for her Senate battle and his presidential library, not the Gore-Lieberman campaign, has hardly improved matters.

Then again, the Democrats are not seeking to pretend, as the Republicans did at their convention in Philadelphia, that they speak with a single, spin-doctored, electorally friendly voice. With the party torn between big business and the unions, between economic growth and environmental protection, and between the suburban middle classes and the working poor, it is seeking to make a virtue of necessity and present the divisions as a sign of dynamism and sincerity.

Yesterday's New York Times was filled with convention-related advertisements challenging Mr Gore to declare his true loyalties. One urged him to drop the Democrats' pursuit of a "Star Wars"-style missile defence system, another questioned Mr Clinton's record on protecting forests, and a third, from the bus riders' union, asked Mr Gore: "Which side are you on? Racism or civil rights?" As Mr Gore seeks to define himself as his own man, he will need to fend off such criticisms. Already, much has been made of Mr Lieberman's differing - and invariably more conservative - views on such matters as school vouchers, social security fund investments and affirmative action.

Although the appointment of Mr Lieberman has gone down well - a Reuters poll yesterday showed the gap between Mr Gore and his Republican opponent, George W Bush, closing to just three percentage points - it will be this convention week that determines whether Mr Gore can push himself firmly into the lead. Reaction to the Clinton farewell will be his first big test.

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