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Here's the scene: It's a splendid, warm October morning. The leading black politicians in the state are gathered for the 50th anniversary of the Southern University Law Center. The liveliest college musicians in the country, the Southern University Marching Band, perform a rousing number. And Vice President Al Gore ends his speech with a riff based on the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:

"If you hold these truths to be self-evident, you are an American in your heart, even if you have never seen our shores. If you deny it -- even if your people came here on the Mayflower -- you never really reached our shores."

It is a stirring moment, followed by a swelling of applause from a sweltering crowd. And though this coda is the highlight of his appearance here the other day, it is not the most politically significant remark Gore makes. This is: "I can't tell you how pleased I am to be back on your campus."

The key word, of course, is "back." This is Gore's third trip to Southern University. It is one thing to be on a first-name basis with the university president, or even to greet the band director with bear-hug familiarity. It is another to recognize faces in the crowd. Gore did.

An hour later Gore is standing in an auditorium at the Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans. He mentions casually that his wife had just been in that very auditorium for another event.

There's a pattern here, and it bears on the struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination for the year 2000. Beneath the reeds, beyond your vision, that campaign is already under way. It is a conflict -- brutal, intense, bitter -- between Gore and his rival, House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

In this contest, Gore has immense disadvantages. He is tied to a White House administration that has lacked a clear vision. He is mired in a campaign-finance scandal that is inscrutable to all but a few experts and has a vaguely distasteful odor to it.

But the vice president also has immense advantages. One, of course, is that his job brings him to places like Baton Rouge, and brings him here not once but repeatedly.

If 90 percent of campaign life is showing up, then Gore has a leg up on Gephardt, who can travel only on weekends or during congressional recesses -- and who never flies on a plane, Air Force 2, that is a tourist attraction in its own right. Then there's the perception advantage: When Gephardt flies to town, he's on political business. When Gore flies to town, he's on official business.

That is the main prize of the vice presidency. John Adams called the position "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived." Thomas Marshall compared the office to a "cataleptic state," saying the vice president "cannot move, he suffers no pain, and yet he is perfectly conscious of everything that is going on about him."

And Hubert Humphrey liked to talk about the mother who had two sons: One went to sea, and the other became vice president, and neither was ever heard of again.

In eight years as vice president, Richard Nixon collected enough IOUs to win the Republican nomination in 1960. Humphrey traveled everywhere as vice president, in part because Lyndon Johnson was so reviled that he couldn't visit any college campuses that weren't entirely surrounded by air bases. And Bush spent eight years serving Ronald Reagan and his own presidential ambitions at the same time, winning the GOP nomination in 1988 with an ease that befuddled all the experts.

Bush, in fact, wrote the guidebook for moving from the vice presidency to the presidency. He learned that a vice president can invite guests to the White House, maybe take them into the White House mess for the most glamorous hamburger this side of Planet Hollywood, maybe pop into the Oval Office for a moment.

Gephardt, who has led the fight against free-trade agreements and last week forced the administration into joining the Washington war against the Internal Revenue Service, has an unusually keen political sense. Not to mention tenacity and commitment. Last week he showed why the Gore camp has reason to fear him -- and why Gore, whose job allows him to campaign every day, is campaigning already, every day.

Universal Press Syndicate

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