WASHINGTON -- It looks like there will soon be a Democratic presidential race after all.
While one leading presidential possibility removed himself from the 1992 picture yesterday, two others -- Tennessee Sen. Al Gore Jr. and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton -- are sending fresh signs that they'll be in.
House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, the early presidential choice of many of his congressional colleagues, confirmed that he has closed the door on a presidential try next year.
"A little more than two years ago, I took myself out of the 1992 presidential contest when I announced my candidacy for majority leader. That decision was right when I made it, and I reaffirm it today," the St. Louis congressman said in a letter to fellow House Democrats.
Mr. Gephardt had been raising money for a possible presidential campaign and had conducted public opinion polls testing such pet themes as international competitiveness, which formed the basis of his unsuccessful 1988 presidential candidacy. Though he is reported to have concluded that President Bush's continued high standing with the public made another run next year too risky, the 50-year-old congressman insisted that "George Bush's popularity is paper-thin, [and] he can be defeated in 1992."
Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton has confirmed publicly for the first time that he may take a presidential plunge.
The 44-year-old Arkansan is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of elected officials that contends that crafting a more conservative message is the key to ending the party's abysmal losing record in presidential elections over the past 30 years.
Mr. Clinton's possible rival for Southern support, Tennessee's Senator Gore, revved up his own potential candidacy yesterday with an unusually harsh denunciation of President Bush's foreign policy record. He said Mr. Bush had "sold out" the Kurdish rebels in Iraq and accused the president of making a calculated decision to permit Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to remain in power after the Persian Gulf war.
"Even though we had demonized [Mr. Hussein] and made him into an ogre, [Mr.Bush] suddenly reversed field and said this is the government that is going to give us the best chance of promoting stability in Iraq. And I think it was a very serious mistake," the senator told reporters.
Mr. Gore accused Mr. Bush of "frittering . . . away" the opportunity to promote democracy and self-determination around the world at the start of the post-Cold War era.
He said that recently disclosed State Department cables about the meeting in Baghdad last July between Mr. Hussein and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April C. Glaspie, "demonstrate the obsequious nature of the Bush policy towards Saddam Hussein up until 15 minutes before the invasion."
"Some of us were on the Senate floor condemning the Bush policy of toadying up to Saddam Hussein in the days preceding his invasion of Kuwait," Mr. Gore said. "At the same time, President Bush . . . was sending other emissaries to kiss the hand of Saddam Hussein and pretend that he was going to be our buddy in the Middle East."
Mr. Gore described this as part of a theme in Mr. Bush's foreign policy. The president, he said, "wants to support whoever is in power, no matter how odious and despicable the human rights violations, the anti-Americanism, the nuclear proliferation. . . . His vision of the New World Order is based on the old-world principles of Realpolitik. Whoever is in power, that's his buddy."
In recent days, other potential Democratic candidates have also assailed Mr. Bush's policy on Iraq. New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo said in a televised interview last weekend that Mr. Bush )) was "wrong" not to "destroy" Mr. Hussein before ending the war.
But Mr. Gore's sweeping attack was by far the toughest to date by a Democratic hopeful. It reflects the 43-year-old senator's belief that the president is vulnerable on foreign policy, Mr. Bush's field of greatest expertise and personal involvement. Mr. Gore is the only potential Democratic contender who voted last January to authorize the use of force against Iraq, although Mr. Clinton said at the time that he would have voted the same way if he had been in Congress.
Mr. Gore, who tried unsuccessfully for the 1988 nomination, said he would decide "very soon" whether to run next year and would announce his intentions no later than by September.
Mr. Clinton also is expected to make his decision known over the next several weeks, as are two other Democrats who appear increasingly likely to run: West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. Another potential candidate, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, said he would announce his presidential plans by summer's end.
To date, only one Democrat has formally entered the 1992 contest, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas.