WASHINGTON -- Side by side on a television talk show last night, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore made what looked like their first joint appearance of the 1996 presidential campaign. But they were careful to keep some distance from the fray, ruling out attending a conference of presidential contenders called by Ross Perot in Dallas for this summer.
"I don't think the president should start politicking too soon," Mr. Clinton said, rejecting an invitation to a forum in August that Mr. Perot has said all the Republican presidential contenders had agreed to attend, as well as the Democratic and Republican Party leaders.
Mr. Gore quickly chimed in that he also would not attend the meeting set by Mr. Perot, who waged an independent campaign in the 1992 presidential race.
For the hourlong appearance on the CNN program "Larry King Live," now a regular stop on the campaign circuit, Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton vigorously boosted the Clinton presidency, defending the administration's policy on Bosnia and expressing optimism on prospects for peace in the Middle East. They also accused the Congress several times of pandering to the paramilitary movement and of investigating the government's handling of the 1993 standoff at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, to divert attention from those responsible for the April bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Mr. King, the suspendered host of the program, caught Mr. Gore off guard when in his first question he asked how long it would take him to be briefed to assume the presidency if that became necessary.
"That's not a hypothetical that I'm comfortable with," Mr. Gore said. "There are procedures in place that we've discussed."
Mr. Clinton then cut in. "I know what you're asking," he said. "The answer is no time at all."
Asked if the two were a formal ticket, Mr. Gore, the straight man of the night, said, "We're not ready to make any announcements." And Mr. Clinton added: "I haven't asked him yet. But if he's willing, that would be my intention."
The president's appearance on the program -- a format that he once said had "liberated " him and allowed him to go directly to the people -- marked the second time in two weeks that Mr. Clinton had turned to the kind of electronic politicking he proved so adept at in 1992. Last week in Montana, he presided over his first televised town meeting in more than a year.
Mr. Clinton, whose command of the medium seemed underscored by Mr. Gore's more stolid presence, strove to portray himself as above partisanship.
The president sought to take back from Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the majority leader and the leading Republican presidential aspirant, the social issue of violence in pop music and movies. Mr. Clinton said he agreed with Mr. Dole, who recently criticized violence in those mediums, and pointed out that he had spoken out against rap lyrics in the presidential campaign and against movie violence in his State of the Union Message.
"If I had any criticism it would be that the whole thing has been politicized," he said.
He also hinted that he would be intrigued by a campaign matchup against Speaker Newt Gingrich. "It would be interesting," Mr. Clinton said with a grin when asked about the possibility that Mr. Gingrich might end up with the Republican nomination.
In a tour of foreign policy issues, Mr. Clinton struck a hard line in trade talks with Japan, saying the United States would not back down in its insistence that Japan open its markets to American cars.
"We have to be firm here," he said. "I have done everything that I could for two and a half years to have a good, constructive, friendly relationship with Japan. We are allies. We are friends but we must be firm on this."
He also vigorously defended his administration's policy toward Bosnia. Mr. Clinton said there had been 130,000 deaths in Bosnia in 1992 as against fewer than 3,000 last year. "That's still tragic, but I hardly think that constitutes a colossal failure," Mr. Clinton said.
The presidential team's sharpest words for the Republican Congress were directed at the reluctance of the House of Representatives to approve anti-terrorist legislation proposed by the president. Mr. Gore suggested the House was reluctant to act "because some of the members of Congress are scared that some of these anti-government sentiments are so strong that they'll be expressed against them if they increase the ability of the government to fight against lawbreakers."
And Mr. Clinton called into question plans by the Congress to hold hearings into the government's confrontation in 1993 with the Branch Davidians in Waco a diversion from the recent Oklahoma City bombing.