Gore's ready to re-emerge

January 23, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- After months of quietly moving around in the shadows of politics, former Vice President Al Gore will surface in Nashville on Feb. 2 for a big fund-raising rally in a downtown hotel for the Tennessee Democratic Party. Many of his supporters will say it's about time.

In a sense, Mr. Gore will be doing no more than what he said he would be doing when he made his graceful exit from the political stage via television on Dec. 13, 2000: "spend time in Tennessee and mend some fences, literally and figuratively."

After his appearance about five weeks later at the inauguration of the man who edged him out for the presidency in one of the most contentious election finishes in American history, he said in a New York Times interview he was going to spend a period of "reflection and rest" before deciding whether to try for the White House again.

A year later, after long vacations in Europe and elsewhere, a series of lectures and teaching sessions at Vanderbilt, Columbia Journalism School and other academic venues, and a few rather stealthy visits to New Hampshire and other states, he has yet to decide on whether to make another Oval Office bid in 2004, according to friends.

He has been occupied writing a book on family policy with his wife, Tipper, that is due at the publisher's by the end of next month -- hardly the sort of tome that would seem calculated to send up skyrockets about another drive for the presidency. At the same time, he is said not to be in any deep funk over his narrow loss of the presidency or raring to lash out.

Before Sept. 11, Mr. Gore had a date to speak in Iowa at its Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in the fall. It was widely speculated at the time that he would use the occasion to break his post-election silence on politics and deliver a sharp criticism of his old adversary George W. Bush on such matters as the president's huge tax cuts. The Iowa dinner was anticipated as a sort of political coming-out party for Mr. Gore.

Instead, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the former vice president in Des Moines 18 days afterward addressed Mr. Bush as "my commander in chief" and declared, "We are all behind our president." It was far from the red meat that the Democratic faithful present would have liked him to serve them, but they understood, as he did, the circumstances that required his gentle remarks.

In November, he took a job as vice chairman of MetWest, a financial services firm based in Los Angeles. He also headed a political action committee, Leadership '02, similar to one he had in 1998, to raise money and train young campaign workers to help Democratic candidates in the 2002 congressional and other races. He is also part of a project on family-centered community-building as a research professor at Columbia and UCLA.

Meanwhile, there is not exactly a Democratic groundswell for Mr. Gore to jump back into the arena. Part of it is an awareness that Mr. Bush continues to enjoy a political halo effect as leader of the war on terrorism. But part of it remains a hangover from disappointment in Mr. Gore as a candidate in 2000, after which he was criticized as having frittered away the Bill Clinton political inheritance.

Sooner or later, however, Mr. Gore is going to have to reassert himself as a strong voice in the party on issues he has impressive credentials to champion, such as the environment and energy policy, if he hopes to resurrect his leadership image in his party.

From a purely political point of view, no other Democrat has yet very effectively filled the void. The Democratic leaders in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, have done their best to blame Mr. Bush's 2001 tax cut for the disappearance of the surplus left by the Clinton-Gore era. But the field for the 2004 Democratic nomination remains wide open.

The action taken last weekend by the Democratic National Committee to advance the timetable for the 2004 Democratic primaries and caucuses, starting in January for Iowa and New Hampshire and permitting all other states to hold their contests in early February, ensures an earlier start than ever in fund raising and lobbying for delegates.

In January 1960, John F. Kennedy strode into the Senate Caucus Room and announced the launch of his campaign for the election only 10 months later. No more. Candidates now can't afford to wait that long, and Al Gore appears to know it well, judging from his forthcoming date with fellow Tennessee Democrats in Nashville.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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