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Nice Al Gore a `money-raising bulldozer'

Vice-President Al Gore has been sucked into the vortex of the great Democratic fundraising scandal, with a highly detailed report in yesterday's Washington Post that portrays him as the cold-blooded "solicitor-in-chief" of money to finance the party's 1996 election campaign.

"Revolting" was the description by one donor of Mr Gore's modus operandi, after he had been pressured by the vice-president, who told him he had been given the job by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) of raising $2m (pounds 1.2m) in a single week. "You're on my list," Mr Gore told his prey, who eventually came up with a cheque for $100,000.

Another donor, whose business often involved dealings with the federal government, described the process as "like a shake-down" and "very awkward," coming as it did from a vice-president with unusual influence inside the Administration. In a third case, a Texas telecommunications firm was pressed into giving $100,000 to the Democrats, after help from the Administration in winning a $36m order from Mexico. Mr Gore personally called to thank its chief executive.

In all, according to the Post, Mr Gore and his aides were directly involved in raising $40m of the $180m gathered by the(DNC) in 1995 and 1996 - most of it so-called "soft money", subject to no limits, which theoretically goes to help the party organisation, and not specific candidates.

The allegations, coming after the fuss over overnights at the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House, and announcement by the DNC that it was returning a further $1.5m of tainted donations, are a further embarrassment for the party, which this weekend also released a 1995 memo detailing how access to President Clinton, in the shape of trips on Air Force One, golf games, White House coffee sessions and the like should be parlayed into extra money for its coffers. But they are also a setback for the unconcealed political ambitions of Mr Gore.

Despite his much-mocked attendance at a fundraiser at a Los Angeles Buddhist temple last April, Mr Gore has managed to project himself as clean-handed statesman while shameless money-grubbing ran amok around him. Mr Clinton might be tacky and loose-principled, the conventional wisdom ran - but not his vice-president, upright to the point of woodenness.

That impression must now be revised. If the Post report's author - Bob Woodward of Watergate fame - is to be believed, Mr Gore was a money-raising bulldozer, extracting contributions with a heavyhandedness bordering on crudity.

The legality or otherwise of what he did will technically hinge on whether as second- ranking figure in the executive branch, he mixed fundraising with government business. Certainly no vice-president, Democrat or Republican, has ever played so extensive and frontal a role in his party's fundraising - and as Mr Gore limbers up for a White House run of his own in 2000, his prowess may prove a two-edged sword.

If disgust at the way sordid fashion politics is financed in the US takes real hold, and if either Congress or an independent counsel take serious aim at the issue, then Mr Gore's coast-to-coast fundraising network could be less blessing than curse.

For almost the first time in Washington's image wars, Mr Gore has come out a loser.