Bill, Hill <i>And</i> Al

000424 clinton hillary bill and al gore
A political trifecta has taken the Big Apple by storm.

On a day marked by reminders of President Clinton's baggage, his closest partners campaigning for their own political futures -- Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- shared a $2-million spotlight Monday night and embraced the president's tenure as "one of the best investments" American voters ever made.

Clinton returned the compliment by passing the torch. "The theme song of this election year ought to be the first song Tony Bennett sang tonight, 'The Best is Yet to Come'."

The $2.2-million fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee marked the first time this year that "the principals," as the Clintons, Gore and Tipper Gore are known in White House shorthand, campaigned together this year.

With his White House legacy on his mind, Mr. Clinton wants to preserve and extend it beyond when he leaves office. As the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Mr. Gore wants to succeed his boss. As for Mrs. Clinton, she aims to be the next U.S. senator from New York.

While Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has made a core campaign issue of "restoring honor and integrity" to the White House after Clinton's scandals, Gore and Mrs. Clinton eagerly grabbed hold of the president's policy coattails.

"The economic performance under President Bill Clinton has been so stunning that we've all run out of adjectives to describe it," said Gore, the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee. "'Great' is the least of them."

In recent months, the vice president and the first lady have kept plenty of public distance from Mr. Clinton, who has helped them both with behind-the-scenes support. Gore has sought to steer clear of his scandal-scarred boss, even breaking with him on a few issues - the Elian Gonzalez case only the latest example. Mrs. Clinton - known simply as "Hillary" in her Senate bid - has endeavored to establish her Empire State roots - and minimize, if not banish, the Year of Monica and Impeachment from voters' minds.

The two couples strode into a Manhattan hotel ballroom together but schmoozed donors from separate tables.

The president, perhaps betraying his longing to hold the stage, was halfway up the stage steps before realizing he was supposed to take a seat at Table 1.

Gore worked a bit of the room -- packed by the Democratic National Committee with celebrities and business tycoons at $1,000 apiece -- then settled at Table 4.

The paid talent, Bennett and comic Jon Stewart, who got laughs with Elian Gonzalez jokes, were mere sideshow to the political crosscurrents among partners who have struck out in their own directions.

Up to now, the president has appeared at a few fund-raisers for his wife's campaign. But a big-money Hollywood bash last weekend was his first political appearance with Gore this year. Henry Graff, a political science professor at Columbia University, sid that while the first lady has shed much of her carpetbagger image in New York, she remains immutably linked to her husband politically - for better and for worse.

Still, Graff said, "Why shouldn't hubby come and help her? She helped him plenty. And Al Gore has now decided that the most popular politician in America is Bill Clinton, and why shouldn't he be attached to him?"

Aides to Mr. Clinton say none of the recent distancing has bothered him, because he shares fundamental political beliefs with his vice president and wife.

"He recognizes that they will have different points of view from time to time, but on the big things...they all see pretty much eye to eye," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert.

And they're all on the same wavelength on the president's ability to raise money, lots of it. As Campaign 2000 kicks into high gear, Gore and Mrs. Clinton need more and more cash to pay for their costly TV ads to come. Remember who their Republican rivals are.

Gore's opponent is the $80 Million Dollar Man, George W. Bush - a candidate not bound by rules for federal matching funds like the vice president. Win or lose, the New York Senate fight between Mrs. Clinton and Rudy Giuliani will likely hit, if not top, $50 million by the end - that would make it the most expensive Senate race ever. So who better to rev up the Democratic Party's base and donors to raise money for them than the Fundraiser-In-Chief?

"Can't hurt," Siewert said.

These days, Mr. Clinton gives two, four, sometimes eight fund-raising speeches a week. He never misses a chance to tout Gore's candidacy. And frequently, he mentions his wife's Senate bid, often with a joke about his own aspirations to join "the Senate spouses' club."

"I'm not running for anything," he says in nearly every speech. He drew affectionate laughter from a partisan audience in Atlanta this month when he added, "Most days, I'm OK with that."

The president even campaigned Monday - and helped raise half-a-million dollars - for Rep. Michael Forbes (D-N.Y.), a recent convert to the Democratic Party, who as a Republican, voted in favor of Mr. Clinton's impeachment.

Asked how the president could support someone who'd voted to impeach him, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said that's a period Mr. Clinton has put behind him, as has the nation, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller.

Last week's campaign finance questioning of Mr. Clinton and Gore aside, expect to see more mega marquee fund-raisers like Monday's in New York. Next month, the Clintons and the Gores are scheduled to appear at "the blue jean bash", a denims-for-dollars DNC tribute to the president in Washington, D.C.

But they'll need to keep up with Bush. On Wednesday, the Texas governor headlines a Republican National Committee gala in the nation's capitol that's expected to raise a record one-dy sum of $15 million.