- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2000

Al Gore yesterday left the campaign trail to return to the White House for the first time in four months, delving into Mideast crises that will send U.S. sailors home in body bags in the waning weeks of the presidential campaign.
Gore aides hoped his meeting with President Clinton in the Oval Office last night would make the candidate look presidential, although they acknowledged he had been planning to come home anyway for a family event.
The vice president and his opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, steered clear of trying to score political points in the midst of twin international crises. Just as fighting intensified between Israelis and Palestinians, a suspected terrorist attack killed at least six U.S. sailors on a Navy destroyer in Yemen.
"Any terrorist should know that whoever is responsible for something like this will be met with a full and forceful and effective retaliatory response from the United States of America," the vice president said. "We will defend our country."
Mr. Bush said: "I appreciate the administration's efforts to bring calm to that troubled part of the world.
"It's time for our nation to speak with one voice," the GOP nominee added. "Take the necessary action. There must be a consequence."
Republicans said the turmoil could hurt Mr. Gore politically. They view the administration's foreign policy as a burgeoning political vulnerability.
But Democrats insist voters will rally around the Clinton-Gore team, sticking with a known quantity and shunning change as turmoil in the Middle East deepens.
Both sides agree the international flare-ups come just as Mr. Bush is demonstrating in the presidential debates that he can hold his own on foreign policy. The Texas governor's detractors had hoped the debates would expose him as lacking a mastery of world affairs.
Complicating matters for Mr. Gore is the negative impact that Middle East strife is having on the economy. Oil prices soared and stocks plummeted yesterday amid mounting worries of further unrest.
The vice president, who had planned to spend yesterday critiquing his opponent's performance in Wednesday's presidential debate, was forced to shift gears and adopt a statesmanlike stance instead.
He said the attack in Yemen is a subject "about which there is no political division anywhere in our country." He added: "I'm not going to deal with political questions in this situation."
But Gore campaign manager William Daley had no such compunction. He said such crises highlight the importance of the vice president's foreign-policy experience.
"I would assume that is a major factor that people will look at," in the Nov. 7 election, Mr. Daley said. He hastened to add that getting peace in the Middle East "is more important than any election."
Unrest in the region is a familiar issue to Mr. Bush's running mate, former Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, who oversaw the Persian Gulf war.
"We'd better find out who did it and retaliate very forcefully," he said.
The death of Americans, Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East was a blow to Mr. Clinton, who has tried for months to negotiate a peace agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Aides who had once whispered about a Nobel Peace Prize for Mr. Clinton watched glumly yesterday as their boss issued a terse statement in the Rose Garden.
"Tensions are extremely high today throughout the entire region," said the president, who refused to take reporters' questions. "The alternative to the peace process is now no longer merely hypothetical. It is unfolding today before our very eyes."
Richard Haas, director of foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said the Mideast turmoil is politically dangerous for Mr. Gore.
"To the extent that this puts foreign policy front and center, history suggests it helps the Republican candidate, simply because in most polls, Americans tend to think Republicans do a better job with the handling of foreign policy," Mr. Haas said. "Democrats are seen by most Americans to be better at handling domestic issues.
"This is now a wild card, politically. It could fade and have no impact. Or it could grow and form the context for the election.
"I mean, imagine if there's growing violence, additional terrorist attacks, oil prices spike even higher, the market tanks suddenly that frames the election," he said. "I don't know whether this has that kind of potential."
Republican strategist Ed Rollins says it does.
"In politics, there are controllables and there are uncontrollables this is an uncontrollable," he said. "This could easily be an Iran-type situation where the final days of this campaign are nothing but disaster.
"I think the Clinton team has been viewed by many in the foreign-policy community as one of the weakest teams in modern times," he said. "And the reality is that Bush has now proved that he's credible enough that he can now speak out with a solid voice and a respected voice on foreign policy, which three or four weeks ago he couldn't have done."
Democratic strategist Bob Beckel disagreed.
"In times of crisis like this, especially in the aftermath of this terrorist bombing, the initial inclination of the American people has always been to rally around the administration," he said.
Andrew Cain contributed to this report.

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