10/02/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
On a sweltering day during her teenage years, Karenna Gore was waterskiing with friends on Center Hill Lake near her family's farm in Carthage, Tenn. "It was a very hot summer, and the lake was low," she says. "The rattlesnakes would kind of slither across on top." When Karenna, in a powerboat with a friend, spotted one of the rattlers not far from another skier in the water, her pal reached over the side and snatched it up. Lesser females might have panicked, but not Karenna. "He stunned it, held its head and had me cut it off," recalls Karenna, now 27. "Then he and I skinned it. Later, I made a belt out of it and gave it to him."
Of Al and Tipper Gore's four children, Karenna, the oldest, has always been the live wire: sneaking out of the house at night, exploring Washington, D.C.'s underground subway tunnels and even once, while cleaning her lacrosse stick with linseed oil, accidentally setting her room at summer camp on fire. "I had a spirited, rocky adolescence," she says sheepishly. Yet even in her diciest moments, Karenna always had a backup. When she racked up $250 in speeding tickets, it was her younger sister Kristin, now 23, who used babysitting money to pay her sister's fines. "I was always a little more of a performer and liked attention," concedes Karenna. "Kristin is a quiet achiever, very focused, very loyal and calm."
Today, as a newly minted Columbia University Law School grad and the married mother of 1-year-old son Wyatt, Karenna and her sister, a Harvard grad who e recently landed a spot as a comedy I writer for the hip FOX animated series Futurama, are taking their sister act on the road. Whether it's Karenna hosting a campaign event with the Goo Goo Dolls at a trendy Los Angeles nightclub or Kristin stumping before 15,000 black ministers at the National Baptist Convention, the two are rapidly becoming the most visible offspring in modern times to go public on behalf of their father's presidential bid.
While no one credits the Gore girls with making policy decisions or singlehandedly roping in undecided voter blocs, they have been influential in what may be an equally important task: helping to loosen up their father's stiff public image. "They have won the political argument in the Gore campaign that he should behave only in ways that are really him," says friend and New Republic editor Martin Peretz. "They are really quite ferocious against those who think the candidate is something to be molded by experts. They have protected his genuineness because, aside from Tipper, they know him better than anyone else."
Still, there has been no family pressure to join the campaign, and the Gores' two youngest children have chosen mostly to sit this race out. Daughter Sarah, 21, who traveled solo last year through New Zealand helping to write a Let's Go student travel guide and this summer restored art in Russia, is entering her senior year at Harvard. Son Albert III, 17, who'll make a Nov. 22 court appearance in North Carolina for a speeding ticket (97 in a 55 mph zone), is focused on playing drums and football and on his senior year at D.C.'s Sidwell Friends School. "The girls feel passionately about the campaign, but we haven't pushed them," says Tipper, who was introduced by Kristin at the Democratic Convention in August. "I was as surprised as anyone about Kristin."
There's little doubt that the girls were steeped in politics almost prenatally. Karenna, just 2 when her father first ran for Congress, learned to ride her bike on the grounds of the Capitol and remembers what often passed as typical dinner-table conversation. "[Dad] was always explaining [nuclear arms control] to us with salt and pepper shakers and silverware," she told a reporter. " 'Okay, here's where the missiles are, and the first launch, and the warhead.' " During summers the family routinely retreated to Tennessee, where the girls' grandfather, Sen. Albert Gore Sr., made sure that they cultivated their country roots by learning such skills as herding cattle. Karenna recalls that the Caney Fork River, which flowed past their house, "was shockingly cold. You had to gasp for air. I remember being squeamish about jumping in. But he would say, 'Don't be a sissy. You're a Tennessee girl.' "
As a teenager, Karenna often butted heads with her parents ("I thought it was horribly oppressive that I had a curfew or had to go to church on Sunday"). Their most notable tiff came during her mother's crusade for parental warning labels on rock music. "I wanted to be cool, like a lot of 14-year-olds," she told The New York Times, "and that definitely didn't help." But Karenna also had a serious side. While attending the all-girls National Cathedral School, she helped escort clients past antiabortion protesters at a local abortion clinic. "Even though she had her rebellious stages, she always was a leader among our friends," says her best friend Lucy Martin McBride, now a resident in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins University. "She was articulate and outspoken and someone people wanted to be around."
But by far the most sobering incident in her early years was the 1989 near-fatal accident in which Albert, then 6, was hit by a car after a Baltimore Orioles baseball game. The family was instrumental in his months of recovery, taking turns sleeping on the floor next to his bed. "He couldn't move around, so we'd do puppet shows and plays and draw pictures," says Karenna. "I remember it being a joyful time, because we were all in the house, helping him heal."
After graduating from Harvard in 1995 with a senior thesis on slave narratives of the 1930s, Karenna spent a year in Spain working for the daily paper El Pais. At a dinner party the next year she met Andrew Schiff, a doctor from a prominent New York City banking family. She married him in 1997 and last year gave birth to the Gores' first grandchild, Wyatt. Typically, after she arrived home from the hospital, it was Kristin who came to stay and help out. "The thing that's so endearing about Kristin is that she carries herself with quiet aplomb," says one of her best friends, Mike Schur, a fellow Harvard grad who is now a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live. "If you just saw her walking past, you'd say, 'This is someone who's got it all figured out.' "
Known for her self-deprecating humor, Kristin herself might argue the point. When her father first ran for President in 1988, she was in fourth grade and made a list of potential pros and cons. One negative: "The Social Security," she wrote, confusing it with the Secret Service, "will always be following you around."
In high school at National Cathedral, Kristin was known as an avid lacrosse player and an independent spirit. "She transcended the cliques," says her best friend Lizzy Francis. "She's charming and compassionate." But she was focused. "I was one of those dorky kids who'd wanted to go to Harvard since the fifth grade," Kristin recalls. Two years after enrolling, she became the only woman writer on the National Lampoon Lit Board, a feat she has duplicated on the otherwise all-male staff of Futurama. "Still, if I have to be anywhere 14 hours a day," she says, "it's good to be with these guys."
Unlike Karenna ("She's been doing it for a year and a half, and she's a natural"), Kristin was at first reluctant to take on a political role. That changed, she says, "when I got settled out here in L.A. I felt, I guess, more secure with myself. I didn't want to be just 'the daughter of.' " At this point, that seems unlikely. Both she and her sister have shown the kind of public poise and ease that their own father might do well to learn from. "They have a rare combination of brains and heart and humor," says one former campaign aide. Indeed, one day, possibly Al Gore just might become known as "the father of."
Linda Kramer in Tennessee, Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.