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It looks like Vice President Gore will get to retire and take up whale watching or tree planting full time at the end of this term. With his popularity figures dropping like a stone, and a Justice Department investigation of his fund-raising activities just beginning, nothing short of a sudden early accession to the seat he covets so much could gain him the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.

Unfortunately for Gore, President Clinton is not only in excellent health, he seems to be sliding through the current mess unscathed, even though he is clearly guilty of almost the exact same illegal and questionable money-grubbing activities that are dragging the vice president down.

While Gore's approval rating has plunged from 59 percent to 38 percent and his negative rating jumped from 25 percent to 33 percent, Clinton's positive numbers have held steady at an amazingly high 62 percent. He's already back on the fund-raising trail, unashamedly raking in another $900,000 at several events even as Attorney General Janet Reno announced an official investigation into his earlier conduct. Meanwhile, Gore has been forced to hire two private lawyers to defend himself from nearly identical charges.

Both Gore and Clinton are insisting that they have broken no law and have done nothing wrong, even though it is already apparent that they did. There is no question both made fund-raising calls from the White House, which is banned by federal law. There's no mystery about why the president is skating and Gore is crashing. After six or so years of scandal and near-scandal, voters know all about Clinton's failings and have already discounted them. They simply like the man. They also know that even if this new probe nails him cold on the fund-raising stuff, and the much-delayed Paula Jones trial blows up in his face, he still won't be impeached, but will serve out the rest of his second term.

Gore, on the other hand, is suffering that extra measure of punishment the public hands out to all those who claim special virtue, then fall from grace. Like many a politician before him, he has discovered that the drawback to campaigning on a platform of honesty and integrity is that you actually have to be honest and act with integrity. His horribly inept handling of the issue when it first came up just made the problem worse. It seems the former senator from Tennessee suffers from the typical Washingtonian belief that whatever he knows his real guilt to be, a little expert spin control can solve any problem.

Of course, the investigations of both president and vice president have yet to begin. But they are in fact little more than the capitol's usual shadow play. There is no doubt that the solicitations took place, only quibbles about whether the money raised was "hard" or "soft" -- a point not covered in the law and therefore good for an argument. And if there was anyone anywhere who wondered why the rich and their corporations were giving so much so freely, Roger Tamraz resolved it last week. The multimillionaire businessman told a Senate hearing that of course the $300,000 he donated was intended to get him in to lobby the president for his pet project, a Caspian oil pipeline. "It's the only reason (people give that kind of money) -- to gain access," he said bluntly.

Gore could have benefited from a similar attack of honesty weeks ago. Instead of lurching from one unbelievable denial to the next, had he fully and publicly admitted his "mistakes," promised not to do it again and asked for forgiveness, he probably would have gotten it, and would still be the front-runner for the presidential nomination, if not the election of 2000. But then if he were capable of doing that he'd probably never have gotten to Washington in the first place.

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