Time for a `New Al Gore'

February 20, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The stampede to California of 2004 Democratic presidential hopefuls during the last week underscores the fact that former Vice President Al Gore will have to fight tooth and nail for his party's nomination, if he indeed decides to go after it.

A consensus seems to be building within the party that he blew his chance in 2000 and doesn't deserve another try or he is too cautious as a campaigner to beat the Republican who took him to a dead heat even before acquiring the aura of the presidency.

No less than five Democrats with their eyes on the 2004 nomination showed their stuff in delegate-rich California, at the state Democratic Party's convention or some other political venue. Mr. Gore was not among them. But he has already broken his post-election hunkering down with speeches in Nashville, Tenn., and New York, while saying he is undecided on seeking the nomination again.

One of the five California visitors, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Mr. Gore's running mate in 2000, has said he won't go after the presidential nomination if Mr. Gore does.

The others -- Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House minority leader, and Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the majority leader, and John Edwards of North Carolina -- have pledged no such abstinence. Few would faint away if Mr. Lieberman were to change his mind if Mr. Gore ran.

In a sense, it's surprising that Mr. Gore, who won more popular votes in 2000 than any Democratic nominee in history and more than half a million more than George W. Bush, should head toward 2004 with such pessimism about him within his party. No doubt it results from a sense that President Bill Clinton handed him such a winning hand that it had to be his own fault that he was denied the presidency.

Optimistic Gore loyalists, however, can point to the example of the other incumbent vice president who lost once as his party's presidential nominee and still won the White House: Richard Nixon. He, too, was only narrowly defeated, by Democrat John F. Kennedy, but bounced back eight years later and was elected.

Nixon not only lost the presidency in 1960 but was humiliatingly defeated for governor of California in 1962. He laid low for most of 1964, making only a feeble and veiled stab for the GOP presidential nomination that year. Then, in 1968, he re-entered as a "New Nixon," amid severe divisions in a Democratic Party torn over the Vietnam War, and won.

All through this period, Nixon was despised by the Democrats and had his share of foes within his own party. He was branded a loser until he shook the label by winning the New Hampshire primary in 1968, and his popularity was mired around 43 percent throughout that election year. But still he managed to capture the presidency.

Mr. Gore is not perceived quite as negatively as Nixon was after his defeats. Nixon had already acquired a reputation as a slashing campaigner in his races for the House and Senate and as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's campaign "hatchet man" in 1952 and 1956. Considering that image, Nixon's political resurrection was close to miraculous.

The problem for Mr. Gore is not that he has had a similar reputation but more that there is a sense of superiority and arrogance about him, best illustrated by his contemptuous manner toward Mr. Bush in their first 2000 debate. Mr. Gore's repeated sighs at Mr. Bush's answers seemed to draw more public comments than did his own fact-packed responses.

After keeping a low profile so far, a period necessarily lengthened by the events of Sept. 11 that dictated deference to Mr. Bush's leading a war on terrorism, Mr. Gore must re-enter the political arena more aggressively soon. The longer he waits, the more encouragement the other Democratic hopefuls can draw, and the more support they can rally.

The advanced Democratic calendar for acquiring convention delegates requires all prospective candidates to intensify their political courtship. Mr. Gore's experience and labors in the party keep him formidable, and the year ahead will offer him ample opportunity to resurrect himself as Nixon did, albeit over a longer period of time.

Looking back, Mr. Gore is not nearly in as deep a political hole as Nixon was when he started his climb to the presidency.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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