WASHINGTON -- Predicting that President Bush "is likely to be quite vulnerable" next year, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore says he is seriously considering a run for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination.
Mr. Gore predicts that the election will revolve around voter concerns that the president has largely ignored, such as the U.S. economy -- not the Persian Gulf war, which lifted Mr. Bush's popularity to record levels in recent polls.
The 42-year-old senator also has been flying high politically since the gulf fighting ended on Feb. 27. He was the only 1992 Democratic presidential hopeful to support Mr. Bush's request to use force against Iraq.
During an interview yesterday in his Senate office, Mr. Gore went to considerable lengths to deny that his decision to break with the Democratic majority in Congress on the war was politically motivated, and he played down its political significance.
Nevertheless, other politicians say, his vote is a potential asset that could allow Mr. Gore to assert that he is uniquely suited to rebut the Republican argument that Democrats cannot be trusted to defend U.S. interests overseas.
"He'll use it as an absolute crutch," predicted a top aide to Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., noting that Mr. Gore waited until the outcome of the Jan. 12 Senate war vote was no longer in doubt before revealing his position.
Mr. Gore acknowledges that, as late as that morning, he was still reserving time to speak from both sides in the debate. As he struggled with his "excruciating" decision, he polled everyone from close friends and family members to the members of his Senate staff. (They split "fifty-fifty," he reports.)
His decision to back Mr. Bush's request to use military force stunned many Democrats and generated what Mr. Gore calls a BTC "mixed" reaction from supporters. Since the war ended, however, he has moved shrewdly to mend relations with fellow Democrats by waging a highly publicized campaign in defense of those who voted against the use of force.
Should Mr. Gore decide to run in 1992 -- and when he speaks of a future presidential campaign, he says "when," not "if" -- it would be his second try. In 1988, he unsuccessfully sought the nomination.
Almost exactly four years ago, when Mr. Gore launched his first bid, he was widely regarded as a late entrant in the field. This year, however, with no announced Democratic candidate in sight, there isn't the same pressure to move, which is fine with him.
"The shorter the campaign, the more interested in it I am," he says, in part for personal reasons. Spending time with his family is increasingly important to Mr. Gore, especially since his youngest child, Albert Gore III, now 8, was seriously injured after being struck by a car while leaving the Orioles' Opening Day game at Memorial Stadium in 1989, requiring almost two years of rehabilitation.
But Mr. Gore concedes that a late-starting race would be to his political advantage, too. Having been around the caucus and primary track before, he's wise to the traps that await first-time candidates.
"I've learned from my mistakes," he says. "You know, I'm not going to talk like a wise, old man -- I'm just 42 years old -- but I feel as if I learned a lot."
Only after considerable prodding does he acknowledge that the war issue has increased the pressure on him from fellow Democrats who want him to become a candidate. But, he adds quickly, "That's not a reason for running."
Potential Gore supporters, however, contend that the last thing Democrats need next year in challenging a popular incumbent president would be a nominee who had gone on record against the gulf war.
"We just don't need a candidate with baggage. We need everything to be perfect-plus," said Nathan Landow, a major Democratic fund-raiser and the Maryland Democratic chairman, who backed Mr. Gore in 1988.
Mr. Gore has already made it clear that he will use the war to his political advantage, but he says he expects the issue to recede before Election Day.
By then, he points out, "the war will have been almost two years in the past and the American people will have focused continuously, for that period of time, on the domestic problems like the economy, jobs, health care, the environment, crime, drugs and all the issues that President Bush has ignored, except in rhetoric."