WASHINGTON — OF ALL the prominent Democrats being mentioned as prospective presidential candidates for 1992, none looks better positioned on paper -- and sounds more ready in recent speeches -- than Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee.
Gore, inoculated against Republican charges of being "wrong" on the Persian Gulf war by virtue of his vote supporting President Bush's use of force, has at the same time demonstrated party loyalty by defending those Democrats who voted the other way against GOP threats to use their votes to unseat them in the next election.
Furthermore, as one who has run once for the Democratic nomination, Gore at only 43 knows the ropes and might benefit from having been around the track as did the last two presidential winners, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Reagan won the White House on his third try, Bush on his second.
Also, other issues with which Gore has been conspicuously associated, such as environmental protection and energy conservation, are achieving a much higher public profile than in the past, and he cannot be accused of being a johnny-come-lately on them.
Finally, there is that beckoning vacuum in the Democratic Party, with no one yet working the politically fertile fields of Iowa and New Hampshire where the first 1992 delegates are to be harvested and, much more important, national media attention focused on a grand scale.
While one Democrat, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, has announced firm plans to declare his formal candidacy, on April 30, and another, former Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the 1972 party nominee, continues to weigh entry, neither is regarded yet as likely to set the voters on fire.
All this would seem to offer an irresistible lure to Gore, whose presidential ambitions came across as approximating lust in 1988, to the point of running a campaign of seeming opportunism that brought him much criticism inside and outside his party.
But Al Gore is not jumping, not just yet. This season's version is a cooler copy, expressing a firm belief that the voters are not clamoring for the 1992 campaign to start and confident that he has little to worry about in taking his own time to decide whether and when to run.
"There's still a Catch-22 at work," he says. "So long as nobody is making a lot of obvious headway in corraling large numbers of delegates, others don't feel the urgent need to jump in and head them off at the pass. They could do so well so quickly that that could change. But I rather suspect that the voters are in a mood to see this thing wait awhile before it moves into high gear." Nor is he concerned, he says, that waiting will confront him with a major fund-raising obstacle.
Gore, while acknowledging that President Bush looks very strong now, insists that his due deliberation is not governed by a concern that the incumbent is unbeatable in 1992. "I believe the president is likely to be politically vulnerable and that the conventional wisdom to the contrary is wrong," he says.
But at the same time, Gore says that his own decision could be affected by whether Bush is able to match his "remarkable" performance in the gulf war in dealing with domestic problems between now and 1992.
"If the president offers bold leadership and seeks bipartisan support the way he did (on the war), the country will benefit and his re-election chances will be greatly enhanced, and that's just a fact. But I'll tell you, I don't expect him to do that." Bush doesn't have the "passion," he says, for domestic problems that he has displayed toward foreign policy.
More important in his own decision-making, Gore says, is whether a second race would prove to be too difficult for him to fill his parental obligations and needs toward his young children. He thought the first time he could spend a lot of time with them but, he says now, "the experience of running before made it more difficult for me to fool myself."
Yet he is sounding increasingly like a candidate. In a speech to newspaper editors in Boston the other day, Gore accused Bush of having "no courage to confront the future the way we confronted Saddam Hussein," and deplored his lack of policies on energy conservation, education, the economy and health care. But apparently it will take more than Paul Tsongas or George McGovern to get Al Gore to jump in right now.