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Anybody seen ol' what's-his-name? Tall, dark-haired guy, wears navy-blue suits, doesn't say much, likes trees and computers?

Oh, yeah, Al Gore, the disappearing vice president. Put out an all-points bulletin, or stick his picture on the backs of cereal boxes.

If memory serves, Gore was Bill Clinton's constant sidekick in those halcyon days when they rode a '96 campaign bus, dancing onstage with their wives to the beat of Fleetwood Mac and singing "Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow."

Now that tomorrow's unthinkable, thanks to his boss's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, Gore is the Vanishing Veep.

Not that Gore was always a wallflower about Clinton's Monica problem. When the scandal broke in January, he drove an Illinois crowd into cheering bedlam as he stood by Clinton and bellowed: "He's the president and my friend, and I want every single one of you to support him and stand behind him!"

But enthusiasm subsided. After Clinton's grudging, bitter TV speech, Gore popped from his Hawaiian vacation resort for a carefully terse statement: "I'm proud of him and honored to have him as a friend." No questions, please.

Actually, no one around Clinton (except Hillary and Chelsea) is more to be pitied than Gore. Disgusted aides can quit. But Gore's fate is hostage to Clinton's. I mean, how can Gore feel, reading that he's the only bulwark against a Clinton impeachment? Makes sense that Republicans would be doubly nervous about throwing out Clinton only to run against incumbent President Al.

The good news? So far the public isolates Gore from Monica Mania. Asked in a Gallup poll if they are "honest and trustworthy," people rate Clinton 31 percent, Gore 63. They still rank Gore highly on "good judgment" and "share your values." Clinton has the Scarlet A, Gore the halo.

That could work for Gore in 2000, if the country's sick of sexual muck and yearns for a straight-arrow president. Gore's continuing romance with Tipper, whom he met at 17, and his bubbly daughters qualify him for the Cleaver Family Good Housekeeping Award.

Bad news is spelled Janet Reno. She's under white-hot pressure from Republicans, plus FBI chief Louis Freeh and her campaign-finance gumshoe, Charles LaBella, to sic an independent counsel on Clinton-Gore money shenanigans.

In his justly ridiculed phrase, Gore said "no controlling legal authority" accused him of wrongdoing. His press conference could have been a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

Gore split legal hairs: He used White House phones to hustle "soft money" for the party, not "hard money" for the Clinton/Gore campaign. Now a semi-smoking gun pops up, a Nov. 21, 1995, memo, "65 percent soft, 35 percent hard." Same memo has the VP saying, "Count me in on the calls."

One guess: Reno will reluctantly stick an independent counsel on Harold Ickes, the switchman of the White House '96 money chase. But if she pursues Gore on an arcane law against waving a tin cup on federal property, the damage in energy, time and prestige might cripple Gore's 2000 hopes.

Ah, the irony: Clinton gets caught for phone sex while Al's nailed for telemarketing.

What's a loyal veep to do while his boss is mired in Monica Mayhem? Dan Quayle, with unsympathetic waspishness, advised Gore, "Do what you're doing -- go 5,000 miles away and stay invisible." Won't work forever. Gore will dutifully emerge on a "see-no-evil" 2000 campaign timetable -- dishing out billions in programs, wooing high-tech moguls, preaching on the environment.

What scandal?

After all, Gore, unlike Hillary and betrayed loyalists, never publicly vouched for Clinton's truth-telling. Like George Bush during Iran-Contra, Al had to be insulated. They've been the chummiest veep and president in history, but it's possible Al and Bill never discussed Monica.

If he survives the next two years untainted, Gore's traits that are gag stock for late-night comics' caricatures -- the bland, tree-hugging Mr. Clean -- could make him a formidable candidate. Meanwhile, Clinton's driving the getaway car with Al Gore locked in the trunk. Going to be one helluva ride.

Philadelphia Daily News

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