Nixon-style comeback for Gore?

March 15, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In a small room at a local steakhouse the other night, former Vice President Al Gore showed up for his first fund-raising stint of 2002 in behalf of a Democratic congressional candidate. No more than 40 or so of the party faithful turned out to hear him.

The beneficiary was Rep. Richard Neal, the first member of the Massachusetts delegation to come out foursquare for him in the 2000 election.

Mr. Neal, in introducing Mr. Gore, said his concession speech then was "an outward manifestation of inner grace."

Mr. Gore recalled television comic David Letterman's observation at the time. Mr. Letterman, he remembered, said the losing candidate had made "the speech of his life," and then commented: "Nice timing, Al."

That reminiscence brought a round of laughter from the small crowd. These days, Al Gore tries to keep 'em laughing and laughs along himself, demonstrating another outward manifestation -- of putting behind him the lost election in which he won half a million more popular votes than his opponent.

Always self-disciplined, Mr. Gore in this brief outing shifted from light-hearted jibes to a dead-serious exhortation to the faithful to keep the House in Democratic hands, to preserve the concept of checks and balances established by the Founding Fathers.

Mentioning his current teaching chores at two Tennessee universities, he noted that his title is "visiting professor -- VP for short. You know, it's a way of hanging on."

And he told of dropping into a Shoney's "low-cost family restaurant" for dinner with his wife and overhearing another customer whisper: "That's former Vice President Al Gore. He's come down a long way, hasn't he?"

This self-deprecation in place of self-pity was Mr. Gore's lead-in this night to the theme he is likely to press in urging the election of more congressional Democrats, and a way to take on the Bush administration without touching this year's political third rail -- the war on terrorism.

Citing the Bush tax cut and other proposals, Mr. Gore counseled: "Even if you think there are some of those things you might agree with, you can certainly see that our founders were wise to say, `OK, let's don't let too much power be put into the hands of one small group.'"

That was not quite the message he was conveying in 2000, however, when he was urging voters to give him a Democratic Congress to work with. This time around, his task is to play the good Democratic soldier without peddling sour grapes over his loss to President Bush, who went unmentioned.

The small fund-raiser for Congressman Neal was only one of many Mr. Gore will undertake this year as he leaves voters to guess whether he will reach for the presidency again in 2004. The old duck test -- if he walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, he must be a duck -- strongly suggests he will. He's scheduled next month to appear with other 2004 prospective hopefuls at a Florida Democratic Party conference.

Meanwhile, the contrast is striking between the immense spotlight that shines constantly on Mr. Bush and the diminishment of Mr. Gore to a political sideshow. It's the fate most presidential runners-up have experienced -- from Barry Goldwater and George McGovern to Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole.

An exception was Richard Nixon in 1960, who managed to keep his political flame flickering even after he, like Mr. Gore, lost a presidential race by an eyelash. Mr. Nixon came back by turning himself into a party unifier and campaigner for Republican congressional candidates in 1966, when the GOP picked up a whopping 47 House seats.

That fall, Mr. Nixon campaigned for 66 Republican House candidates and 44 won. In the 1966 campaign, however, Mr. Nixon was helpfully identified as the architect of the Republican success by President Lyndon Johnson, who unwisely accused him of playing politics with the war in Vietnam "in the hope that he can pick up a precinct or two, or a ward or two."

Mr. Nixon piously countered that LBJ "has struck at the very roots of the right to dissent," and came out of that off-year congressional election his party's reborn hero.

Mr. Gore no doubt would like to replicate Mr. Nixon's showing. But he probably can't count on President Bush playing into his hands as Mr. Johnson did for Mr. Nixon.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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