WASHINGTON -- When House and Senate committees conduct hearings on campaign finance abuses later this year, their main focus will be the Clinton presidential campaign of 1996. But Republican congressional leaders also have another target in mind: the Gore presidential campaign of 2000.
Vice President Al Gore, who hopes to succeed Clinton, raised millions of dollars in "soft money" for the Democratic National Committee last year -- an effort that put him together with some questionable donors whose money since has been returned by the party and with some of those who solicited the funds.
Gore was embarrassed last year when it was disclosed that he appeared at a fund-raising lunch at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles -- an event that the Democrats acknowledged should not have occurred at a place of worship and that raised questionable donations.
Now the vice president and his supporters are bracing for more congressional scrutiny of that incident and others from two years of determined fund raising on his party's behalf:
Gore presided over 23 of the now famous White House "coffees" that were staged for big donors and other supporters; his wife, Tipper, held at least four similar events at the vice president's government-owned residence. Among the guests at Gore's coffees in his office in the Old Executive Office Building in the White House complex: Roger Tamraz, a fugitive Lebanese businessman sought by Interpol on embezzlement charges stemming from the collapse of a Beirut bank he once chaired.
A star attraction at DNC fund-raisers, Gore met with or spoke to some of the foreign-linked donors whose substantial contributions subsequently were returned, including Thai businesswoman Pauline Kanchanalak and Indonesian citizens Arief and Soraya Wiriadinata. The vice president has known John Huang, the fund-raiser who brought in many of the troublesome Asian contributions, since 1989, when Gore -- then a U.S. senator -- met him in Taiwan.
The vice president wrote a warm letter on White House stationery praising a venture of the Lippo Group, the Indonesian company that once employed Huang and that has been at the center of the fund-raising storm. The Gore supporter who requested the letter said it would help cement a Lippo joint venture with his American company in China. A Gore spokeswoman described the letter as routine.
Aides to the Senate and House panels investigating the campaign finance issue said they plan to look into Gore's role -- and acknowledged that the inquiry could become an early skirmish in the next presidential campaign.
Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee and a potential GOP presidential candidate, already has fired a shot across the vice president's bow. Subpoenas issued by Thompson's committee to dozens of potential witnesses two weeks ago demanded documents related to the Hsi Lai Temple event, at least one of Gore's coffees and Gore's letter praising the Lippo venture.
Gore is keeping a low profile on the issue, speaking out in favor of the campaign finance reforms that President Clinton has endorsed but avoiding questions about his own role. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
"Gore's got a pretty thick shield in terms of integrity," said Carter Eskew, a Democratic media consultant who has worked closely with the vice president. "People think he's an honest guy."
A recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that 45 percent of respondents rated Gore's ethical standards as "high" or "very high." On the same question, Clinton scored 31 percent.
But some Gore supporters worry that the campaign finance issue could puncture the vice president's armor.
"The damage that's been done to him is that you have someone who was so pristine that any allegation is in stark relief to the
view that people hold of him," one said.
As the fund-raising controversy continues to grow, it seems that Thompson's Senate hearings could turn into a dress rehearsal for the 2000 presidential campaign.
Thompson and Gore, the most powerful members of their respective parties in Tennessee, already have a notably chilly relationship.
Gore can be grateful for at least one thing: He is undergoing his trial by fire on the issue three years before the next presidential campaign and has plenty of time to recover any ground he might lose.
"Any incumbent vice president rises or falls on the reputation of the administration he serves," noted Mark Siegel, a longtime Democratic strategist. "If the economy turns down, if the unexpected happens, the whole picture may change. It's way too early to predict the impact this might have in 2000."
Pub Date: 2/24/97