WASHINGTON - With the newly bearded Al Gore reentering active politics back home in Tennessee as a tutor for young folks interested in getting involved in the game, that other game - speculating whether he will or won't seek the presidency again - is off and running.
One group of players is saying he blew his chance last year, driving off potential contributors and supporters, and ought to take a shower and find something else to do with his life. This group holds that he needs to discover for himself who he is before trying to sell Al Gore to the country again.
Another group says he got shafted last November in Florida, and thus is justified in running again because he won the national popular vote by more than half a million ballots and accumulated more votes than any previous Democratic nominee, winner or loser.
The first group says Mr. Gore lost in part because if he didn't exactly run away from his political benefactor, Bill Clinton, he sure treated him during the campaign as if he had leprosy. He kept the president on a short leash, these naysayers hold, while not adequately trumpeting Mr. Clinton's accomplishments, choosing instead to run as "my own man."
The second group says internal polls showed Mr. Clinton would have hurt more than helped had he campaigned in close, key states, and besides, Mr. Gore did talk repeatedly about what the Clinton-Gore administration had done in eight years of good times.
Mr. Gore himself, however, will decide whether to try again, and for all the crepe-hanging going on within the Democratic Party, he has ample rationale for doing so. He is by far the best-known available Democrat, and has had the best on-the-job training for the presidency and as a candidate. And he can convince himself that he was undone not by the voters but by a narrow, conservative majority on the Supreme Court in a bizarre exercise of judicial intervention.
As for the gloomy forecasts that his time has past, Mr. Gore would do well to recall the experience of another vice president who sought to succeed an extremely popular president but lost narrowly. His name was Richard M. Nixon, and he took the baton from Dwight D. Eisenhower and dropped it in 1960 in a race in which he lost to John F. Kennedy by a mere three-tenths of one percent of the popular vote.
Nixon, like Mr. Gore, was accused by critics in his own party of blowing the election, and he went briefly into hiding. Two years later, he sought a safe haven from running what he thought would be a rematch with the popular Kennedy in 1964, by seeking the governorship in California in 1962. But he failed again, giving him a two-election losing streak.
Pronounced politically dead in his famous "last press conference," in which he promised - erroneously, it turned out - that the press wouldn't have him "to kick around anymore," Nixon doggedly resurrected his political fortunes by working diligently for other Republican candidates in 1966-1967. Finally, in 1968, he won the White House in another squeaker.
Nixon accomplished the feat when there were at least three other prominent Republican contenders in the picture - Govs. George Romney of Michigan, Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Ronald Reagan of California. As of now, polls show Mr. Gore is far ahead of the few Democrats being mentioned as possible rivals - Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, little known yet around the country; House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Sen. Joe Biden, both themselves previous presidential nomination losers; and assorted others of low name recognition.
Mr. Gore's comeback chances may depend in large part on whether his 2000 campaign warnings of economic and budgetary disaster under a George W. Bush presidency come to pass between now and 2004. If so, he can tell the voters that he told them so - that the fat tax cut Mr. Bush promised and then achieved would gobble up the surplus built in the Clinton-Gore years, bringing back deficits without saving Social Security and Medicare down the road.
But Mr. Gore will have to take care, even if that should happen, not to come off as a know-it-all, a perception that hurt him badly last fall. In other words, he will need more than a new beard to get many voters to see him in a different way next time around.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.