Tips for Gore from Nixon's interregnum

Comeback: The GOP vice president's path from loser in 1960 to White House occupant in 1968 offers a model for a Democrat in a similar situation.

April 12, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As he plots his comeback, Al Gore is peering down a trail blazed by an unlikely path-breaker: Richard M. Nixon.

Like Gore, Nixon was a sitting vice president who barely lost an election to succeed his term-limited boss. His defeat by John F. Kennedy in 1960 was the closest presidential contest of modern times - until the one in 2000.

"If I was Gore, I would do exactly what Nixon did," said Patrick J. Buchanan, a close aide to Nixon at the time. "Take the abuse from the media and everyone that you're a loser. Let the expectations fall dramatically. And then go and work your heart out for every Democrat - left, right and center."

Recently, after keeping a low profile since the election, Gore started campaigning and raising money for his party's candidates around the country just as Nixon did in the 1966 midterm election.

"You work hard. You crisscross the country. You raise money. You pick up your chits. And you get people talking about you," said Ken Khachigian, a former Nixon White House aide.

Gore has also begun speaking out. He has been increasingly critical of President Bush's domestic policies while supporting the administration's anti-terrorism efforts.

He is likely to raise the volume tomorrow when he addresses a Democratic Party convention in Florida, scene of the climactic battle of the Bush-Gore election.

The weekend event has the trappings of a presidential "cattle show," with several likely contenders for the 2004 nomination on hand, including Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.

Also present: Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who plans to have coffee tomorrow morning with his 2000 running mate. Lieberman, gearing up for a possible presidential try of his own, says he won't run if Gore does.

Gore hasn't made up his mind about running, said friends and family. But he's moving in that direction.

He has formed a political action committee to finance his political travels and to make modest contributions to other Democrats. Members of his family are re-emerging, with carefully choreographed network TV appearances (though Gore isn't granting any interviews).

His wife, Tipper, said on NBC last week that it "makes common sense" for him to decide by the end of this year whether he's running in 2004. Advisers said a public announcement could come as late as next spring.

Team Gore doesn't blanch at comparisons with Republican Nixon, the bete noire for generations of Democrats. Perhaps it's because Nixon's comeback took him all the way to the presidency.

There is no comparable success story in the Democratic Party, which tends to treat its losers badly.

Only once in the past 94 years has a defeated Democratic candidate even managed to win renomination. Adlai E. Stevenson gained the honor in 1956, only to lose a second time to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who put Nixon on his ticket.

Gore "is aware of the parallels, sure," said a longtime adviser, speaking on condition he not be identified.

Another member of Gore's inner circle, reflecting the degree to which some have apparently studied the matter, pointed out that "Nixon had a very loyal crowd that kept him afloat" during his political interregnum.

Nixon, said this Gore intimate, is "the only model" for Gore's current situation.

Gore is getting just the kind of tepid treatment from top party leaders that Nixon did after his defeat. A recent poll of 29 state Democratic chairmen by Washingtonian magazine found only one who favors Gore in 2004. Nixon, after being rebuffed by the national party, had to charter his own plane for a five-week swing through about 35 states leading up to the 1966 vote, Buchanan recalled.

Organized labor, the most powerful single player in the Democratic nomination game, isn't rushing to embrace Gore again. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, whose federation backed him even before the 2000 primaries, said Gore "deserves our consideration - but it is too soon to say where [labor is] going" in 2004.

Dimming Gore's chances for securing labor's early backing again is the likely candidacy of House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, a union favorite. He and other Democratic contenders figure to be much tougher opposition for Gore than lone challenger former Sen. Bill Bradley was last time. (In 1968, Nixon had to fend off a number of rivals to win the nomination).

National polls show that Gore is still the top choice of Democratic voters. But such surveys are often meaningless at this early stage. The first real test will be the race to raise the millions needed to finance a presidential candidacy.

Gore's past supporters will probably give him enough money for a credible national campaign, said Nathan Landow, a Maryland fund-raiser who was a prominent money man for Gore the first time he ran for president, in 1988.

But, added Landow, "there isn't a great deal of excitement out there right now" for Gore among Democratic donors.

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