The Veep: Call Me Al, Corporate America's Pal

Can Gore break through business' distrust before 2000?

All of a sudden, Al Gore is everywhere. On Jan. 13, the Vice-President announced a plan to tame suburban sprawl. On Jan. 14, he proposed a public-private partnership to train Americans for high-skill jobs in industries facing worker shortages. On Jan. 15, he unveiled a new Administration plan to spur development in distressed cities and rural areas by doubling the number of tax-advantaged "empowerment zones." With President Clinton pinned down by impeachment and preparing for what may be his most important State of the Union address, the Vice-President has become the front man for the Administration.

None too soon. The Presidential election is less than two years away, and with the possibility of facing fund-raising dynamos such as Texas Republican Governor George W. Bush, prospective candidate Gore is making sure he is visible--and actively reaching out to Corporate America. The White House wants to convince voters that the loyal No. 2 played a central role in the economic boom of the '90s. "The challenge is to get people to understand that he has been a full partner in economic policymaking, so he gets credit for the Administration's accomplishments," says Harvard University Law Professor Christopher F. Edley Jr., a former White House policy adviser.

"KNEE-JERK RESPONSE." Despite his New Democratic roots, however, the Veep is still seen by many as the environmental extremist of Republican caricatures. Erasing that image among business leaders may not be an easy task. So, after spending six years trying to "reinvent government," Gore is striving to reinvent himself. "The knee-jerk response to Al Gore originally was that he is an environmentalist, and any environmentalist has to be antibusiness," says Housing & Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, a Gore ally. "The truth is more nuanced." The truth, according to Cuomo, is that the Veep is a pro-business centrist who served as the chief Administration proponent for fiscal discipline and trade expansion, even as he pushed for spending on the environment, education, and high-tech research.

Business lobbyists aren't buying that just yet. "The guy's a little weird," says Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business Survival Committee. "CEOs hear his talk about the combustion engine being the greatest threat to mankind, and it sends a jolt down their spine." Auto companies and old-line manufacturers view Gore as a Big Government activist. U.S. Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice-President R. Bruce Josten echoes the doubts of many execs when he says that Gore's perceived regulatory zeal would cripple companies by subjecting them to a "mandate-of-the-month club."

Like his boss, though, Gore has been popular in the high-tech community. "He clearly knows what he's talking about," says Jerry Yang, co-founder and CEO of Yahoo! Inc. Silicon Valley has yielded both support and campaign cash for Gore, who's no slouch as a fund-raiser.

GLOBAL SAVVY. Lately, Gore has been trying to expand his business beachhead. He began courting Wall Street last spring with a New York lunch attended by such financial heavyweights as Bankers Trust CEO Frank N. Newman, Lazard Freres CEO Steve Rattner, J.P. Morgan CEO Douglas "Sandy" Warner, and former GOP Commerce Secretary Peter G. Peterson, chairman of Blackstone Group. After the Asian economic collapse in November, Gore reconvened his Wall Street "kitchen cabinet" at the White House. Says Newman, a former Deputy Treasury Secretary: "He was able to dig into a pretty sophisticated discussion of many countries around the world."

To enhance these international credentials, Gore also plans to attend the Jan. 28-Feb. 2 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There he'll discuss the impact of globalization on the international financial infrastructure.

Despite some progress, Gore faces an uphill struggle to win business hearts and minds. "He knows he's got a lot of work to do," says one adviser. But the Vice-President also knows that the economy could be his greatest asset in 2000--if he can just get some executives to pitch their dog-eared copies of his 1992 enviro-tome, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, and let him turn a new page.

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