AL GORE IS toast. That's the inescapable conclusion about the Tennessean's presidential candidacy in the year 2000, after the Washington Post's Sunday front-page blockbuster revealing that Gore was the "solicitor-in-chief" (as they nicknamed him at the Democratic National Committee) for the '96 ticket's law-flouting fundraising machine. Bob Woodward's story, based on 100 interviews and documents recently obtained by congressional investigators, painted a thoroughly unappealing picture. Gore's telephone solicitations were as subtle as a collection agency's dunnings, and contributors told Woodward that Gore's influence-peddling was "revolting" and a "shakedown."

At an unusual, hastily called press conference in the White House briefing room the next day, Gore's nervous, mealy-mouthed performance raised more questions than it answered. It was analogous to Richard Nixon's famous "I am not a crook" defense. Gore admitted making calls for cash from his office, asserting they were "perfectly legal" because he used a DNC phone credit card--despite the fact that the Hatch Act makes federal property a sanctuary from any fundraising activity. Further, a 1995 legal memorandum to White House staffers from then-counsel Abner Mikva explicitly forbade any political fundraising from the Executive Branch as illegal.

Gore has simply told too many lies. He lied in the lachrymose '96 convention speech about how his sister's death from lung cancer transformed him into an anti-tobacco militant--although in his '88 presidential campaign, years after her death, he boasted to tobacco state voters of his own hands-on experience as a tobacco planter and pledged to support continued federal tobacco subsidies. He lied about knowing funny-money collector and Lippo Group mole John Huang--even though, while still a senator, Gore was accompanied by Huang on a trip to Taiwan paid for by a Buddhist temple. When that same sect had one of its U.S. branches cough up nearly $150,000 in campaign cash (since returned as illegal) for the '96 campaign, and the press got wind of it, Gore denied knowing that the gathering at which he shilled for the dough was a fundraiser--but documents showed that Gore had been thoroughly briefed by his staff on his money-raising role there (no wonder the tabloids have labeled this episode Gore's "Temple of Doom").

The aura of inevitability conferred on Gore's presidential candidacy by the inside-the-Beltway pundits has now evaporated, opening the door to a progressive challenge that could split off elements of the liberal left constituency hitherto co-opted by Clinton/Gore.

Of the putative candidates so far, Senators Bob Kerrey and Jay Rockefeller are both fiscally conservative, downsizing deficit hawks; moreover, Kerrey's chairmanship of the Democratic Senator Campaign Committee ties him too closely to the soft-money scandal, and Rockefeller has even less charisma than Gore (besides, the notion of the Democrats winning with a Rockefeller is, to say the least, bizarre). House minority leader Dick Gephardt sees himself as labor's candidate, but corralling votes for too many Clinton administration compromises with the Republicans has tainted him. John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator, will have plenty of money (thanks to his merger/marriage with the ambitious widow of former Republican Senator John Heinz, the condiment heir who left her $750 million), but he's a patrician stiff with a spotty record of senatorial accomplishments. Ex-Senator Bill Bradley is another fiscal conservative, and pompous to boot.

Jesse Jackson is making his usual quadrennial noises about running, but he took a dive in '96, when Clinton/Gore and the DNC helped pay off his deficit from previous campaigns and engineered a seat in Congress for Jesse Jr., thanks to massive infusions of campaign cash (including money from the Lippo Group) and the cooperation of Chicago's Daley machine (which sabotaged its own candidate in Junior's favor). Besides, Jesse Sr. is angling for a roving ambassadorship to replace Bill Richardson.

That leaves the rumored presidential candidacy of Minnesota's Paul Wellstone, who this weekend--in response to a question on CNN--declared in favor of a special prosecutor for the campaign-money scandal. But Wellstone has yet to fully break with the corrupt Clinton/Gore administration, and risks being outflanked by Bradley on campaign finance reform, which Dollar Bill is making a priority. Wellstone can only emerge from an undistinguished pack if he leads the charge against the corporate takeover of the Democratic Party and returns to the unambiguous and full-throated left populism that first got him to the Senate. If he does that, his campaign could draw together a coherent left electoral force too long missing from our politics. It's an exciting prospect for these otherwise dreary times.

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