In one of the fastest transformations in history, Vice President Al Gore has suddenly become our designated heavy hitter in foreign policy, outdoing both President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

After the vice president made political mincemeat of Ross Perot, the White House let it be known that Gore would be rewarded with expanded responsibilities in international diplomacy.But no one could have imagined how swiftly and dramatically Gore would be pushed to the forefront. On the spot when ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky abruptly emerged as the hottest - and most dangerous - politician in Russia, Gore took the offensive.

Gore was undoubtedly operating with Clinton's approval. This is not a fellow who recklessly freelances.

Even so, the spectacle of an American vice president publicly lecturing the Russians on the outcome of their first venture into a full-scale Western-style parliamentary election was certainly unique.

Gore went beyond the traditional polite diplomatic murmurings of disapproval to urge Russians to "really fight politically" against Zhirinovsky, a fascist-style extremist. Gore reinforced the Clinton administration's backing of embattled President Boris Yeltsin despite some State Department doubts about becoming too committed to one individual in such a volatile situation.

American influence over internal Russian politics is usually marginal and can be counterproductive. The impact of Gore's activism may never be clear.

But the episode itself said a great deal about Gore. This is the disciplined man who has patiently walked a step behind Clinton for a year, careful not to upstage the boss in public or to seem too independent. His triumph over Perot unleashed the full force of his intellect and personality.

Gore's Moscow performance was an unaccustomed display of vice presidential prowess. He is becoming the most visible and useful second banana in history, the closest thing to a co-president our Constitution would allow.

From the beginning, Gore's portfolio has been exceptional, including environmental issues, streamlining the federal bureaucracy, congressional lobbying, the selection of appointees and the broad duties of an all-purpose adviser. But none of these has the prestige and potential for disaster of foreign policy.

To Clinton's credit, he has the self-confidence to delegate such unprecedented responsibility to a vice president who could some day challenge him for the presidency itself. It is to Gore's credit that he has earned this extraordinary trust from the president.

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Inevitably, this looks like a rebuff to Christopher, who was preoccupied with the wrong regional crisis - the Middle East - when the Russian election went sour. In truth, Christopher has an identity problem regardless of Gore; no matter how effective he is behind the scenes he just does not project a forceful personal image.

The key to all this is a president who has less interest in foreign policy than in domestic matters. He has vowed to concentrate on problems here at home, for which he is best suited both by experience and instinct.

Some foreign policy duties, of course, he cannot and should not delegate. The president's own visit to Moscow in January - and what he says and does there - will naturally have broader repercussions than Gore's advance tour.

But it makes sense to delegate more international tasks than mere funeral-going to his vice president. As an experiment, it is off to a bang-up start.

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