BERLIN -- Al Gore, take heed. It was the Bill and Helmut show as President Clinton and Chancellor Helmut Kohl crisscrossed Germany yesterday, looking and sounding for all the world like a couple of political running mates.
In the United States, many Democratic senators and congressmen are putting all the distance they can between themselves and their party's president. They can read the polls, which show Mr. Clinton getting negative ratings overall from American voters for his handling of his job.
It's an ironic role for Mr. Clinton, the domestic president whose growing involvement in foreign policy rubs American voters the wrong way. But he took to it yesterday with practiced ease.
At a joint news conference in Bonn and later at an official luncheon, both carried live on German television, Mr. Clinton delivered the sort of positive sound bite that plays well with voters in television democracies such as Germany and the United States.
Offering praise for what he described as Mr. Kohl's eloquence, Mr. Clinton remarked that, when he attends meetings of world leaders, "They call on me and I say, 'I agree with Helmut.' " Mr. Kohl, seated beside him, gave a satisfied chuckle.
The two men ate and talked their way across western Germany yesterday. Today, they'll take their road show to Berlin, where Mr. Clinton will become the first U.S. president to visit since the Berlin Wall was torn down five years ago.
To give an appearance, at least, of neutrality in Germany's elections, Mr. Clinton posed briefly for pictures with leaders of Germany's other main parties, Rudolf Scharping and Klaus Kinkel.
But the message was clear as Mr. Clinton and Mr. Kohl showcased "their close, personal relationship" as one White House aide sought to portray it. Combining good political images with their common love for good eating, the German leader took Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to his hometown of Ludwigshafen for a private dinner last night.
The two leaders and their wives rolled up to Mr. Kohl's modest, two-story house in the chancellor's customized bus -- shades of the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign "buscapade." Then they pumped the hands of the 300 people waiting outside.
Six hours earlier, they had lunched on marinated filet of beef, stuffed filet of sole, vegetables with basil butter, peach parfait, champagne and two types of white wine.
Discarding the usual diplomatic formalities, it was "Helmut" and "Bill," or "President Bill," as Mr. Kohl dubbed him several times in his public remarks.
By sharing the stage with the head of the world's only superpower, Mr. Kohl hopes to reassure voters who are swayed by foreign policy concerns, noted a German political analyst. At the same time, the easy rapport between the two leaders helps Mr. Kohl reach voters who have only a limited interest in politics.
"He wants to show people that he is a statesman," said Dieter Roth, of the Mannheim Opinion Research Group. "Kohl and the government can say, 'Look at these wonderful people. These are my friends. We are working closely together, and we have the same policy goals.' "
Mr. Clinton's image as a young, active president is also something Mr. Kohl would like to get close to. During his European tour, there has been a smattering of reports in the local news media likening Mr. Clinton and his wife to John and Jacqueline Kennedy, a comparison that is likely to be made again today when Mr. Clinton speaks at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Mr. Clinton isn't the first American president to come to Mr. Kohl's aid in an election season. In 1989, President George Bush's visit to Mainz, in Mr. Kohl's state, was timed to coincide with an election there.
"Obviously, there are domestic po
litical aspects of this for Chancellor Kohl as he goes into the elections," said a senior administration official, who briefed reporters on condition that he not be identified. "We will be doing our best to avoid becoming a partisan factor here."
Mr. Clinton, who has partisan purposes of his own, has tried whenever possible to send a domestic political message during his overseas travels. At last weekend's Group of Seven economic summit in Italy, he repeatedly stressed the link between worldwide economic growth and prosperity at home. Yesterday, the focus was on the military.
En route to Berlin, Mr. Clinton made a stop at Ramstein Air Base, home to nearly 20,000 members of the armed forces and their dependents, the largest American community outside the United States.
"Berlin is free. Germany is united," Mr. Clinton told the crowd of military personnel. "But make no mistake about it, our commitment to the security and future, to the democracy and freedom of Europe, remains. Our security and our prosperity depend upon it."
Mr. Clinton's two-day visit to Germany, the final stop on a weeklong European tour, is at least in part an attempt to smooth over any hurt feelings caused by last month's D-Day celebrations, from which the Germans were excluded.
The president is to return to Washington tonight, but he doesn't plan to stay long. He'll be hitting the road later this week to push his health care reform plan.