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Scandal puts Gore in a delicate spot

The public storm over President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky places Vice President Al Gore in an awkward position, caught between the imperative of demonstrating his loyalty and the necessity of staying away from the whole mess.

These are not automatically contradictory roles, but they do require a delicate balancing act. So far, Gore has managed it with professional aplomb. But as the saga rolls on it may become more difficult for him to remain simultaneously supportive and distant.As President Clinton's heir-apparent, Gore's future, after all, is inextricably entwined with that of his mentor.

So long as the president's popularity is stable, his vice president can travel about the country raising funds for his pending 2000 pres-idential bid without a political downdraft. Gore is indeed now doing just that, with considerable financial success.

The president's problems are personal and clearly of his own making; they have nothing to do with policies in which his faithful running mate could possibly be implicated.

Should independent counsel Kenneth Starr close in on the president with serious evidence of suborning anyone to commit perjury, however, Gore's situation would become increasingly dicey. As Clinton's friend and second-in-command, some guilt by association might stick. It could force Gore either into more active participation in Clinton's defense or overt efforts to contrast his own character with that of Clinton. (Watch for pro-Gore leaks to ap-pear).

Gore is expressing his support for the boss through enthusiastic comments about Clinton's presidential greatness, reinforced by repeated declarations of friendship. He does not acknowledge that there is any embarrassing problem here.

Gore's advisers pass the word that he doesn't know anything about the Lewinsky situation and doesn't ask. That sounds right. Clinton's alleged sexual adventures seem an unlikely topic for the president to discuss with his straight-arrow vice president.

But if Clinton were forced from office by the threat of impeachment or the sheer weight of disgrace, Gore would be the chief beneficiary. He cannot afford even the suggestion of disloyalty or eagerness to benefit from the boss's travails. He cannot step away lest he be seen as an opportunist and ungrateful fair-weather friend.

Given their unusually close personal and professional partnership, it is hard to believe that Gore will ever be anything but totally in Clinton's corner, publicly and privately. On the other hand, Gore has his own future to consider.

Other vice presidents have faced similar dilemmas as they tried to protect their own future amid White House crisis.

As veep, George Bush managed to get safely through the Iran-contra scandal that threatened to bring down President Ronald Reagan by insisting he was out of the loop, a contention never proved or disproved. He went on, scandal-free, to win the presidency.

Hubert Humphrey refused his advisers' recommendation that he resign as vice president once he won the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination in order to separate himself from President Lyndon Johnson's disastrous pursuit of the Vietnam War. Humphrey didn't hesitate. He in-stinctively responded that he did not want to be disloyal, even if his faithfulness cost him the election. It did.

The Gore strategy for the moment is to carry on as usual, glued to Clinton's side. It's a bravo performance.