There was a potted plant and there was Al Gore, the livelier of the two, standing at the center of a circle of students at a San Francisco high school.
Gore was conducting a forum on youth violence along with his wife, Tipper, a kind of "Oprah meets Joyce Brothers" session with lots of furrowed-brow talk of building "relationship skills" and stopping "the continuum of violence" and emotionally "nourishing our children."
At one point, the vice president of the United States earnestly probed the meaning of that most venerable imprecation, Yo' mama!
"So when [someone] starts insulting or disrespecting another student, often they're thinking badly about themselves?" Gore offered.
In the background, looming in the staff area behind a metal police barricade, was Bob Squier, Gore's longtime political advisor and image impresario, alternately pacing, pursing his lips and nodding his approval.
The vice president's two-day visit to Northern California last week was all about helping others--raising money for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gray Davis and secretary of state wannabe Michela Alioto, presiding over the Lincoln High School session of therapy in the round.
At the same time, however, Gore also hoped to help himself.
Wherever the vice president goes, whatever he does, the 2000 presidential campaign hovers ever present in the background, much like the lurking Squier. For any Democrat, the road to the White House runs straight through California, with its indispensable trove of 54 electoral votes. And no Democrat has done more to hog the highway than Gore.
While President Clinton's California compulsion has been well documented, the vice president has quietly visited the state more than three dozen times since taking office in January 1993. The trip last week was Gore's sixth California stopover this year. At least one more is likely before the Nov. 3 election, aides say.
With connect-the-dots precision, Gore has courted each of California's key constituencies--from gays and feminists to Latinos and labor to Hollywood and high-tech honchos--creating what one strategist called "a continuity in the state," presumably intended to pick up wherever, and whenever, support for Clinton leaves off.
Recently, the vice president stationed two political staffers in Los Angeles, the better to hustle contributions and serve as California eyes and ears for Leadership '98, his political action committee and presidential campaign-in-waiting.
"The idea is to build a foundation," said one member of Gore's informal California Cabinet, a group of half a dozen Clinton administration carry-overs and other Washington expatriates, including former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros and ex-Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica). "You gather some names, put together some lists, collect some chits so that, come 1999, you can hit the ground running." (Naturally, all bets are off in the event of Clinton's resignation or impeachment.)
But Gore's potential rivals for the Democratic nomination aren't about to cede the state without a fight.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who faced Gore in the 1988 Democratic primaries, enjoys strong support within California's congressional delegation and has his own healthy statewide fund-raising base. Just last weekend, Gephardt stumped in Sacramento and Los Angeles for congressional candidates Sandy Dunn and Janice Hahn, respectively, and attended a pair of Southern California fund-raisers for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Woodland Hills).
Meanwhile, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, apparently edging closer to a presidential run, used a yearlong teaching stint at Stanford to further enhance his standing in the state, particularly within the high-tech community. Disney chief Michael Eisner is a longtime friend and past political supporter, providing Bradley a possible entry to Hollywood.
Another potential Democratic challenger, Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, has visited California three times in recent months.
Still, Gore remains the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination and carry California in the process, thanks in no small part to his matchless ability to curry favor, summon publicity and command the loyalty of party faithful through thousands of favors granted over years of careful cultivation. "The race," said one Democratic strategist, "is between Gore and whoever becomes 'Anyone but Gore.' "
But even before the primaries begin, an interesting test is shaping up over the competition to host the Democratic convention in 2000. Soon after the November election, political insiders expect the choice to be officially narrowed to Philadelphia and Los Angeles, with Gore, for all intents and purposes, making the final call.
While the vice president is close to Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, three Democratic heavyweights--developer Eli Broad, attorney Bill Wardlaw and entertainment mogul David Geffen--just happen to be co-chairmen of Los Angeles' convention recruitment campaign.
Whatever Gore decides, "he'll either make an awful lot of people happy or an awful lot of people angry," said one prominent California Democrat, as yet uncommitted in the 2000 campaign.
Call it the conventional wisdom: Gore's pick could say a lot about the vice president's confidence in his California credentials.