CHICAGO -- In an audacious attempt to turn one of his greatest vulnerabilities into an asset, Vice President Al Gore said Saturday that he would make overhauling the campaign finance system a central theme of his presidential bid. He brushed aside fresh questions about his own conduct in raising money, insisting that he had learned from his mistakes and was seizing the issue with the passion of a convert.
Gore made it clear that he viewed his heightened zeal for campaign finance not only as a draw for the independent voters who had flocked to Sen. John McCain of Arizona but as an organizing principle for his campaign against Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. He contended that Bush had proposed an unworkable and perhaps ruinous economic plan because he was beholden to the special interests -- including the chemical industry and assorted "fat cats" -- who have financed his campaign and expect a break on their corporate taxes.In his first substantive interview since effectively securing the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday, Gore on Saturday offered one of his bluntest condemnations of Bush. Signaling that he was ready to dive into a monthslong battle with the two-term governor, Gore said repeatedly that Bush lacked the experience to be president, stoking questions that swirled in the primaries over his rival's gravitas. He said this was evident in the governor's failure to put forth a "presidential-class" economic plan.
"You have to wonder, does George W. Bush have the experience to be president?" Gore asked in an interview in his cabin aboard Air Force II as he flew here from Minneapolis. "I think that these two issues are closely related. The people of this country overwhelmingly reject this risky tax scheme that would put Social Security and Medicare at risk and threaten our prosperity.
"So why is he proposing it, even though the numbers don't add up? Because the vast majority of the soft-money donors have this risky tax scheme as their personal top priority. The agenda of the special-interest donors supporting Governor Bush is completely different from the agenda of the American people."
Gore said he had adopted the passion of a convert on campaign finance in part because of the "pain" he experienced following revelations of his role in aggressively collecting money for his and President Clinton's re-election in 1996. People close to Gore said that he was particularly stung because he had always prided himself on his image of being above reproach. As part of his new offensive Saturday, Gore did something he rarely does -- he uttered the words "Buddhist temple," a phrase he had been careful to avoid. Now that one of his longtime fund-raisers has been convicted of excesses in connection with a fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple, and fresh video has been released of him with the Buddhists, he seemed to have less trouble saying the words.
"I made a mistake going to that Buddhist temple; I made a mistake in making telephone calls from my office," he said. "And I have learned from those mistakes." Leaning forward in a folding chair for emphasis, Gore added: "I have a passion for campaign finance reform that is fueled in part because of the pain of those mistakes."
Gore's decision to try to embrace campaign finance as an issue is striking, given his own history -- and the fact that when the disclosures first surfaced about his fund-raising, he steadfastly refused to concede any error. He has apparently decided that emphasizing the issue might be his best hope for attracting McCain's supporters and for inoculating himself against the Bush campaign's drive to continually try to link the vice president to campaign finance abuses.
In recent days, Bush has ridiculed Gore for calling on him to reject unregulated soft money in the campaigns this year while at the same time the vice president has been aggressively raising such funds. Saying that he was no hypocrite, Gore pointed to his appearance Saturday morning in Minneapolis with Gov. Jesse Ventura, the independent who is a champion of campaign reform. Gore sought to validate his own position by saying of Ventura: "He's probably the best-known advocate of reform among the independents of this nation. And he makes the obvious point: That there's no inconsistency whatsoever in calling for a ban on soft money and playing by the rules as they currently exist. It's the same thing as arms control -- you can be for arms control without being for unilateral disarmament."
During the interview, Gore repeatedly invoked the name of McCain for two reasons: to use the senator's comments against Bush, a fellow Republican, and to flag to voters that he considers himself the legitimate heir to McCain's loyalists. He said he too has a genuine commitment to changing the campaign finance system because, like McCain, he has acknowledged his involvement in inappropriate fund-raising practices. "Like John McCain, I bring the passion that comes from personal experience to the battle for campaign finance reform," he said.
The Bush campaign is so eager to raise questions about the vice president's character that in his victory speech Tuesday night, Bush reminded people of Gore's early explanation that his fund-raising practices were acceptable in the 1996 campaign because there was "no controlling legal authority." And the matter shows no signs of going away. On Saturday, The New York Times reported that senior Justice Department officials twice urged Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Gore for his role in fund-raising, and at one point came closer than had been known to persuading her to appoint one.
Even as he seemed newly repentant and energized about this crusade, Gore at times was dismissive toward the subject. For example, he brushed off questions about the new reports, in which Leon Panetta, the former White House chief of staff, recalled the vice president "listening attentively" to discussions about making calls to raise hard money.
"That's old news," Gore said.
Asked whether there should be an independent investigation of his actions, if for no other reason than to reassure the public over lingering questions, Gore laughed at the idea, and said, "This was all reviewed three years ago."
He immediately turned to what he called questions about Bush's campaign-finance practices. He condemned Bush for turning down federal money for his campaign so that he did not have to accept limits to how much he can spend. He also criticized what he called secretly financed sneak-attack ads.
Ari Fleischer, a Bush spokesman, responded: "Al Gore can't escape the ethical cloud he's under by raining on Governor Bush. The vice president is under fire for his misrepresentations of his fund-raising actions and the FBI's conclusion that he may have given false testimony to investigators."