Clinton finally let off leash as Gore campaign falters

US election: President comes out fighting to protect his legacy: Shoring up vote in California and trying to salvage foreign policy reputation
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The Independent US

In the high-stakes chess game that is the last lap of the 2000 US presidential election, you have only to look at where each side is moving its key pieces to appreciate the state of play.

In the high-stakes chess game that is the last lap of the 2000 US presidential election, you have only to look at where each side is moving its key pieces to appreciate the state of play.

While a confident George W Bush spent yesterday "barnstorming for reform" across the Midwestern battleground, Al Gore was in the north-western states of Oregon and Washington, traditional Democratic bastions that he should have locked up long ago.

Though with undisguised reluctance, the Gore campaign was preparing to let a chafing President Bill Clinton off the leash in California, now that this state (and its 54 electoral college votes) looks less safe.

Meanwhile, Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State, was in Pyongyang - of all places - angling to secure a US role in the North-South Korean rapprochement that might offer Mr Clinton at least some consolation for the Middle East peace he seems to have lost.

With two weeks to polling day, in a race always seen as Mr Gore's to lose, it is not just the Democrats' White House tenure that is on the line but the legacy of Mr Clinton, and no one is more aware of it than he. Apparently smarting from criticism by the Gore campaign that he had recently digressed without its say-so into presidential campaigning, he told a campaign rally for his wife, Hillary: "I care about what happens ... because everything we worked for is on the line."

"Everything we worked for" includes the budget surplus, halved welfare rolls, record low unemployment, reduced crime and, until the violence in the Middle East and attack in Aden on the USS Cole destroyer, a prevailing sense of security at home and peace abroad. But Mr Gore has been reticent about vaunting these achievements for fear, it seems, of associating himself with the personally flawed President.

Mr Clinton's frustration at his Vice-President's questionable competence on the stump has surfaced only occasionally in recent months. But in New York state on Sunday it appeared to spill over as Mr Clinton gave a textbook lesson of how to take on George W - and win. "You have to decide what you believe," he told supporters of his wife's bid for the Senate, "but make no mistake about it, there are big differences between us." Republicans, he went on, in implicit criticism of Mr Gore's approach, "have been successful in clouding the difference. If we can make it clear, we'll win. They want cloudy, we want clear."

Playing on Mr Bush's accusation that Mr Gore was guilty of "fuzzy math" in the way his tax cuts and pension spending added up, Mr Clinton said: "If you want to keep the prosperity going and extend it to people left behind" - another Bush phrase - "you have to have a budget that keeps paying its debt. Their numbers don't add up. We brought arithmetic back to Washington and we ought to keep arithmetic in the classroom of Congress and the White House."

However, the first two-term Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt and arguably the best political campaigner of his generation is having to face not only the unanticipated political frailty of his favoured successor but developments at home and abroad that threaten his record and legacy.

Recent stock-market jitters fuelled a sense of unease about the economy. Another such Wall Street "correction", added to still-rising fuel prices, last week's higher-than-expected inflation figures and slowing retail sales would raise questions about Mr Gore's hitherto unchallenged campaign pitch that Americans have never had it so good - and Mr Clinton's claim to have exercised far-sighted stewardship of the economy.

Abroad, what appears to be the collapse of the Middle East peace process spells the end of Mr Clinton's efforts to go down in history as a peace-maker.

And, while the new mayhem in the region apparently derives from forces beyond US control, there are those who blame Mr Clinton for trying to force the pace of peace beyond what local politics could sustain. Whether the reasons were idealistic or political, altruistic (to help Mr Gore) or selfish (to crown his presidency) now hardly matters. With that peace lost, it is no wonder that Mr Clinton is looking farther afield for achievements - even as far as Pyongyang.