WASHINGTON -- Given a final word in their final debate, Al Gore said he ''kept the faith with his family'' and his 30-year marriage. George W. Bush raised his right hand and pledged to ''uphold the honor and dignity'' of the White House.
Each had in mind the same issue: Clinton fatigue.
Evidence of the phenomenon is hard to find in polls, and some Clinton partisans deny that it still exists, but most Democrats say the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky is an undercurrent in this year's closely fought campaign.
It may be why Gore is keeping his distance from President Clinton.
''You can't always put your finger on it, but it's lurking just below the surface like a snake waiting to take a bite at Gore,'' said Democratic consultant Dane Strother of Washington.
Along with other Clinton-Gore controversies -- from Whitewater to the 1996 fund-raising irregularities -- Clinton's impeachment seeded the electoral landscape with cynicism and distrust of Washington. It created fertile ground for Bush to raise doubts about Gore's character and gave voters a reason to consider a change at the White House, despite relative peace and prosperity.
''I am so confused. I am really trying not to equate Gore with Clinton's moral mishaps,'' said Emily Meyer, an undecided voter from Middlesex, Pa. ''But it's hard for me to distinguish Clinton's lack of truth-telling from Gore's. I know I shouldn't punish (Gore), but I do.''
Almost six in 10 people approve of Clinton's job performance, but more than half view him unfavorably on a personal level, polls show. Analysts say impeachment is most likely to linger as an issue among parents -- especially mothers like Meyer who believe the scandal brought an unseemly topic into their living rooms and undermined their efforts to teach honesty to their children.
Judging by Gore's arms-length relationship with Clinton, he sees his boss as a potential liability in the campaign. Gore allies want the president to energize core Democrats without overshadowing the vice president or alienating swing voters.
Thus, the president's activities will be restricted to raising money and rallying Democrats. Clinton will record radio ads and phone messages targeted to minorities and attend get-out-the-vote rallies; a California trip is already under consideration.
But he won't attend joint rallies with Gore, a vice presidential aide said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
White House aides say they find that attitude patronizing. They argue that Clinton is the best man to explain to voters, even those holding a grudge against him, why the country should stay the course and elect Gore. Relations between Clinton and Gore have frayed over the issue, aides say.
Bush strategists plan to highlight Clinton's activities on behalf of Gore, betting that swing voters won't like it. When the president said Thursday that he ''almost gagged'' over an answer Bush gave in the final debate, the Texas governor quickly replied: ''I'm pleased the president is getting back in the race.''
Gore advisers say they're reacting not to impeachment but to the traditional problem facing vice presidents: He needs to stand on his own. But allies outside the campaign say Gore's task was complicated by impeachment.
Michigan consultant Ken Brock, for example, said he suspects that ''Clinton-phobia'' kept Gore from running on the economy sooner. ''Maybe there's a fear that every time you mention his name you get the downside and not the upside,'' the Democrat said.
Gore has tried for months to avoid the downside.
At the Democratic National Convention, the vice president planted a long kiss on his wife, Tipper, before declaring in his acceptance speech: ''I'm my own man, ready to turn a page at the White House.'' Both the kiss and the speech were viewed as attempts by Gore to distance himself from Clinton's personal transgressions.
Gore didn't mention Clinton in the three presidential debates. The president's name was notably absent Thursday from a major address delivered by the vice president, making the economy a centerpiece of his campaign.
''I don't think it was premeditated,'' said Gore adviser Carter Eskew. ''As we've said on a number of occasions, this election is about the future.''
But the vice president must deal with the past.
Following the speech, syndicated talk show host Rosie O'Donnell asked Gore why Clinton's foibles had ''tarnished'' him. ''I hope it hasn't because I am who I am,'' Gore replied, noting again that he has been married 30 years and is ''devoted'' to wife Tipper. ''I condemned his personal mistake. I do so again.''
Suspecting all along that impeachment would make character a big issue, the Bush campaign waited to pounce on Gore's first slip up. It happened in their second debate, when a few misstatements gave Republicans ammunition to call Gore a ''serial exaggerator.'' Gore's honesty ratings dropped nearly 20 points, according to Democratic polls.
''If we hadn't had all this perceived dishonesty in the White House the last eight years, small verbal gaffes would just be small verbal gaffes,'' Strother said.
And yet, many Democrats say Clinton could win re-election if the Constitution allowed it; a nimble politician, Clinton could finesse his character issue better than Gore.
''Gore may be suffering from Clinton fatigue,'' Brock said, ''but if he was better at connecting with people, he could get over it.''
Ron Fournier is chief political writer for The Associated Press.
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