WASHINGTON - Auto executives planning to unveil high-tech concept cars next year pondered, at least briefly, whether Vice President Al Gore might benefit politically from the timing and location of the event.
Executives from DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors ultimately scheduled the event for April in the nation's capital - not in Michigan, a potentially important swing state in the 2000 presidential race.
The episode demonstrates that joint government-industry research to develop ultra-fuel-efficient vehicles is not without political overtones and that some industry people remain anxious about a possible Gore presidency.
Ford's Washington vice president, Janet Mullins, identified by people with knowledge of the talks as a top opponent of a Michigan event, declined to comment. She is a Republican and former Bush administration official.
A TOUCH OF POLITICS
Andrew Card, chief of GM's Washington office and another Republican, said there was only a 'tinge' of presidential politics in the talks. He said he favored a Washington event because lawmakers and bureaucrats are the ones who need to grasp the promise - and the limitations -of Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, an industry-government research program.
Card also said he expects ample publicity in Michigan and elsewhere about the unveiling and Gore's participation - regardless of when and where it is held.
DaimlerChrysler's Washington vice president, Robert Liberatore, a Democrat, would say only that Gore's office is satisfied with the group decision.
Earlier, he alluded to Gore's gaffe in claiming responsibility for the Internet, and said mischievously, 'It is fair to say that Al Gore invented PNGV.'
The partnership was launched in 1993 by the former Big 3 and the Clinton administration to develop prototypes of affordable 80 mpg family sedans by 2004. Gore was a key player in negotiating the agreement and has monitored the program's progress closely. Next year's concepts are to embody advancements so far.
Each of the U.S.-based automakers is expected to unveil a hybrid-powered car built with lightweight materials.
Morley Winograd, senior policy adviser to Gore, agreed that a Washington event in April is acceptable, maybe even advantageous. He said it might help persuade lawmakers to loosen federal purse strings for the partnership.
FUNDING UNDER SCRUTINY
Current budget bills wending their way through Congress would cut federal funding for the partnership by at least 10 percent.
Suggesting initially that he was surprised to hear anyone would view the partnership as a political issue, Winograd then acknowledged that everything becomes political in an election year.
Nevertheless, he said Gore and the top car company executives agree that new automotive technologies are needed.
Card said he is bothered that Gore's view of the industry seems not to have changed despite all the technological progress of the past decade.
Card said he saw Gore quoted recently as 'standing by every word' of his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, which called the internal combustion engine a threat to the planet.
Card, who said he was speaking for himself and not GM, said, 'I find that troubling.'