CHICAGO -- Al Gore has been here before.
Tonight, the vice president will break with tradition by making his big speech at the Democratic convention in advance of his renomination.
The idea is to spotlight Gore, one of the party's most popular figures, whose acceptance remarks tomorrow will be overshadowed by President Clinton's address.
One thing Gore won't bring up, he concedes, is his own experience the last time the party met in this city -- as an anti-war student in the angry streets outside the convention hall.
It is an obscure bit of his resume, one that clashes with his centrist, pro-military, New Democrat image.
Despite the atmosphere of reminiscence that surrounds the party's return to Chicago, Gore never mentions his '68 experiences as he makes the rounds of the convention city, delivering pep talks to delegates and, in the process, solidifying his strong position as Clinton's likely Democratic heir.
In an interview last week aboard Air Force Two, the vice president spoke guardedly, and somewhat hesitantly, about what happened when he and his older sister drove from Tennessee to Chicago that summer.
"I was pretty young," said Gore, then a 20-year-old Harvard student.
While he admits spending time in the parks and streets where the demonstrations took place, Gore said he spent more hours inside the convention hall, where his father, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore, an outspoken opponent of the war, was among the speakers.
"I guess everybody has vivid memories of that time and place," he said, pausing.
" I don't know what to tell you about it."
Only with prompting does he offer one recollection. From his vantage point on the edge of a park, he watched as soldiers in fatigues patrolled Chicago's violence-wracked downtown in Army jeeps.
"One of them went very, very slowly, with movie cameras, and it seemed to me as if what they were doing was filming the faces of everybody in the crowd on both sides of the street," he said.
Gore says that he was not an active participant in anti-war protests, though he certainly sympathized with them. He says he doesn't remember being part of any crowds that were driven back by Chicago police firing tear gas and waving nightsticks.
"I thought the Vietnam War was a mistake," he says. "To that extent, I certainly, you know, to the extent that a lot of those outside the hall shared that view, yes."
Despite his firm opposition to U.S. policy in Vietnam, Gore enlisted in the Army after his graduation from college in 1969.
He did so, in part, to help his father, whose anti-war views were being attacked by his Republican opponent, Bill Brock, who went on to defeat the senior Gore in 1970.
Today, Gore's record as a Vietnam veteran -- he served as an Army journalist -- is among his most valuable assets and a useful counterweight to Clinton's history as a draft avoider.
Just last week, Gore substituted for Clinton as the campaign's representative at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Louisville, Ky.
After a five-minute monologue poking fun at his own exaggerated reputation for stiffness, the audience warmed to his defense of the administration's record in fending off Republican efforts to cut veterans benefits.
Several veterans interviewed said they wished Gore's name were at the head of the Democratic ticket this year, though others indicated that Clinton's defense of veterans spending may have helped defuse some of the old anger about his draft record.
Gore's performance as vice president -- he is generally considered to be as influential as anyone who ever held the office, if not more so -- has won him high marks from Democrats.
And his travels on behalf of Clinton -- 373 days on the road, 46 states and more than 110 fund-raising events so far, according to his office -- have helped earn him political IOUs and a leg up in the race for the nomination in 2000.
"There'll be a strong presumption favoring the vice president, based on the job he's done," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, the party's general chairman and a potential presidential candidate himself.
Other possible challengers to succeed Clinton include House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a favorite of organized labor, who reportedly is visiting all 50 state delegations in Chicago; Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who considered a challenge to Clinton in '96; and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia.
Gore, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1988, has admitted he'd like to try again. Saying, "I'm concentrating on 1996," he disdains all public talk about 2000.
He doesn't have to talk. Others are doing it for him. He is frequently introduced at campaign events as Clinton's successor, something that may depend largely on whether Clinton has a successful second term, assuming he and Gore win in November.
As vice president, the 48-year-old Gore has labored in the virtual obscurity that goes with the office. On a daylong trip to Kentucky and New York last week, only one reporter accompanied him. Often he has no traveling press corps at all.
That will change this fall, helped along by the unusual amount of attention that Republican running mate Jack Kemp has received.
Advisers to Gore, whose political stock rose sharply after he bested Ross Perot in a televised debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, say they are eager for the vice president's improved skills as a campaigner to get more recognition.
Other Democrats relish the comparison with Kemp.
Yesterday, introducing Gore at a breakfast of the politically powerful California delegation, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown boasted, "If you would place Al Gore vs. Jack Kemp, Al Gore would be a No. 1 draft choice and Jack Kemp would be a walk-on."
To chants of "Four More Years," Gore strode into the gilded ballroom of the Chicago Hilton, the headquarters hotel of the 1968 convention, directly across Michigan Avenue from Grant Park, where young Al had wandered amid the motley crowd of demonstrators long ago.
"Twelve more years!" a California delegate called out.
"One at a time," responded Gore, smiling. "One at a time."
Pub Date: 8/28/96