PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - In a major lift for his front-running presidential candidacy, former Gov. Howard Dean has gained the support of Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee and the popular-vote winner in the last presidential election.
Gore, the former vice president, has remained largely out of the public arena since deciding a year ago that he would not run in 2004. He is expected to appear with Dean today in the early showdown state of Iowa, where the first presidential votes will be cast next month.
Dean has been privately wooing Gore for months, but news of his endorsement, on the eve of a TV debate in New Hampshire tonight featuring all nine Democratic candidates, caught party politicians - and the other campaigns-by surprise.
One leading Democratic strategist, who is not connected to any of the presidential camps, described the impact of Gore's decision as "huge." In spite of losing the electoral vote and the presidency to George W. Bush, Gore retains a reservoir of good will within his party, particularly among blacks, the party's most loyal supporters.
His endorsement of Dean's outsider campaign is a severe blow to the establishment candidates in the field, particularly Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who was Gore's running mate in 2000.
The announcement also comes at a propitious moment, in terms of both strategy and tactics in the nomination contest, as well as the looming campaign next year against President Bush.
Many Democratic politicians - as well as Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist - have concluded that Dean is the likely Democratic nominee. Thanks in large measure to unprecedented support from online donors, he has eclipsed the Democratic fund-raising record - a reliable yardstick for success in presidential primaries - and is showing considerable strength in the early primary and caucus states.
But his critics within the party, including a significant number of elected officials, are concerned that nominating Dean, the former governor of a small, liberal New England state, is a recipe for a Bush re-election landslide.
Gore's backing will provide Dean with a ready answer to those who say he is too far out of the mainstream and can't win.
A senior strategist in the Dean campaign said the endorsement validates Dean's claim that he is the Democrat best suited to challenge Bush in next year's election.
From the outset, Dean has argued that he would take the fight to the Republican president - something that, he contends, his party's Washington-based candidates have been unwilling or unable to do.
Gore's support "is a tremendous affirmation of what this campaign is all about, from a guy who has more reasons than anybody to want this party to fight and change the outcome of three years ago," said Paul Maslin, the Dean campaign pollster. He called Gore's backing "one more huge step" for Dean.
Many, if not most, Americans are as yet only dimly aware of Dean, 55, a physician by training who has come out of nowhere to lead a large field of Democratic contenders. Gore's endorsement is likely to draw the attention of voters who are not yet following the presidential race closely, and it will put an establishment stamp on the insurgent candidacy.
The timing of Gore's announcement is particularly important in terms of the dynamics of the 2004 contest, which could be effectively decided before Democrats in most primary states have an opportunity to vote.
Maslin, the Dean strategist, predicted that Gore's endorsement "will have a tremendous impact in Iowa," which holds its presidential caucus in less than five weeks.
In Iowa, Dean is attempting to knock off one of his main rivals, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who won there in 1988 and has said he must do so again next month. Polls show Gephardt holding a narrow advantage over Dean, who is now able to vastly outspend him, thanks to his decision to pass up partial public funding.
In the 2000 Democratic Caucus, Gore won Iowa by a lopsided margin over former Sen. Bill Bradley and swept his way to the nomination.
His campaign announced last night that Dean would make a hastily scheduled trip to Iowa for a "major announcement" this afternoon in Cedar Rapids, a stronghold of the United Auto Workers union, whose state affiliate is backing Gephardt.
Defeating Gephardt in Iowa would put Dean in a strong position heading into the first primary, eight days later, in New Hampshire. A new poll in New Hampshire shows Dean with a 25-percentage-point lead over the second-place candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. The Franklin Pierce College survey of likely Democratic primary voters, released yesterday, is similar to others made public in recent days that show Dean with a seemingly insurmountable lead in this state.