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GOP's attacks fail to rein in fund-raiser Gore

In a scathing, partisan assessment of Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising practices, Senate Republicans investigating campaign-finance abuses concluded in a draft report last week that Gore took part in a coordinated drive before the 1996 presidential election "to violate the letter and spirit of existing federal campaign laws."

Yet if Republicans intend to discourage Gore from his quest for contributions in this midterm election year, they have failed miserably. If anything, his advisers said, Gore has stepped up his pace of helping Democrats raise money.Gore is creating his own political action committee that will help finance his travel to political events around the United States, and allow him to contribute to campaigns directly.

On Saturday night, for example, he is the main attraction at a swordfish dinner in Miami Beach at an annual retreat of the Democratic Business Council, an exclusive club of donors who have contributed at least $10,000 apiece.

Gore's willingness, even enthusiasm, for raising money demonstrates that despite a climate in which campaign-finance practices are drawing far more scrutiny and harsh publicity, politicians are not about to jeopardize their campaigns financially.

Ridiculing the scalding conclusions of the Senate Republicans' report, Ronald Klain, Gore's chief of staff, said: "Untrue, unfair political charges leveled at him are not going to keep him from doing what he can to help the Democratic Party. I think the public will grow sick of it."

For Gore, the incentive is twofold: One of his most important assignments as vice president is to raise money for the Democratic National Committee and other arms of the party. But in the process, Gore helps himself by mingling with donors whose generosity might be critical when he begins, possibly later this year, to raise money for his own run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.

The only concession to the fund-raising furor that enveloped him last year, aides said, is that Gore has stopped hitting up donors over the telephone.

The White House sex scandal has made him even more timid about making direct appeals for money, particularly since advisers said Gore did not want to appear to be in any way angling for the president's job. In fact, that scandal has led Gore to put off the official start-up date for his political action committee.

Still, Gore's advisers cautioned that his respite from seeking donations by telephone may be only temporary. (Gore was cleared in December by Attorney General Janet Reno of accusations that he improperly made dozens of telephone solicitations from the White House.)

In an interview several weeks ago, Gore appeared defensive and uncomfortable when asked whether the furor over his fund raising in 1996 would hinder his own future prospecting for money. While Gore sidestepped the question, and responded in the present tense, he made clear that he would press ahead on the fund-raising circuit.

"Both the president and I have made a commitment to help the DNC to raise money," he said. "And I have not noticed any difficulty accomplishing that task."

Week after week, month after month, Gore travels the country appearing at private homes and hotel ballrooms as he raises money for Democratic candidates. That helps explain why even at this early stage Gore is widely considered to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Consider, for example, the vice president's visit one night late last year to a dinner ($5,000 per couple) at the sprawling white brick home in Dallas of Robert Utley, a multimillionaire banker.

Gore's mission: to hobnob and pose for photographs with the wealthiest Democrats in Texas. Such dinners are so locked into Gore's schedule (sometimes two or three times a week) that his actual appearances are down to a science, from the precise position where he stands to the American-flag back-drop.

It is a scene that Gore rarely allows reporters to witness: There he was, positioned on the edge of a Persian rug in one of Utley's elegant sitting rooms, a velvet rope in front of him to make sure the guests flowed in the most efficient manner possible.

While waiting to greet the vice president, guests filled out cards with their names and addresses. An aide read the cards and discreetly alerted Gore to the identity of his next guest. Another aide put the guest's purse or cane on a table so it was not in the photograph. These people were not giving money to Gore but to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats to the House.

This event was important because history shows that more than anything, candidates with the most money in the bank win their party's nomination. And because of Gore's incumbency advantage - and ability to meet donors with events like the one in Texas - his advisers say he should not have a hard time collecting the roughly $35 million that candidates who accept federal money can spend in the primaries.

Gore is not the only one who has been sensitive in the wake of the campaign-finance storm; donors are more hesitant as well.

Gore is still positioned to collect more than any of his opponents - and faster. Donors gravitate to people who are perceived as front-runners, and Gore's influential policy role makes him all the more attractive.

"There's a reciprocal deal here," said Lynn Cutler, a White House deputy director of intergovernmental affairs and former vice chairman of the Democratic Party, when asked why Gore attends so many fund-raisers. "He needs to do it as a party leader. But he's helping himself."