Gore's blessing

December 10, 2003|By Jules Witcover

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean must wake up these mornings wondering what good news will fall his way next.

His endorsement for president by former Vice President Al Gore was a huge surprise in its timing, less than six weeks before the first votes in the 2004 Democratic nomination race are cast in Iowa. But considering Dr. Dean's outspoken opposition to President Bush's invasion of Iraq and his handling of the aftermath, it made sense because Mr. Gore has been similarly critical.

In terms of maximum political impact, Mr. Gore's decision to speak out forcefully now sends a strong positive message to establishment Democrats, many of whom have harbored doubts about Dr. Dean's electability.

If voters were surprised that the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee did not endorse his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, they should not have been.

More than a year ago, Mr. Lieberman took the occasion of a meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist party organization of which he is a prominent member, to say essentially that Mr. Gore had blown the 2000 election by sounding too liberal. Mr. Lieberman, in a meeting with reporters, suggested that Mr. Gore, in using the theme, "We're for the people, they're for the powerful," had harmfully reminded voters of the party's liberal, New Deal roots with divisive rhetoric that Republicans call class warfare.

Mr. Lieberman's remarks were taken by some Democrats as rank ingratitude by the Connecticut senator to the man who, with some potential risk, had made him the first Jewish politician on a major party national ticket. But policy rather than pique probably was at the core of Mr. Gore's decision to endorse Dr. Dean.

On first learning of it Monday night, Mr. Lieberman sounded a tad petulant. He recalled that he had said prior to Mr. Gore's decision not to run again that he would stay out of the 2004 race if the 2000 party standard-bearer decided to seek a second nomination.

The next morning, he sounded downright angry, saying Mr. Gore was supporting a candidate "who is so fundamentally opposed to the basic transformation that Bill Clinton brought to their Democratic Party in 1992." Mr. Gore, he said, "will have to explain why he is supporting somebody who I think would take our party and country backward, not forward."

The obvious answer is that Mr. Lieberman's strong support for the invasion of Iraq ran counter to Mr. Gore's opposition to the war.

Also, Mr. Lieberman's sluggish start as a candidate, marked by weak showings in early polls in the kickoff delegate-selecting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, did not make him seem a likely nominee. Mr. Gore, in his endorsement of Dr. Dean, pointedly called him the only Democrat who had demonstrated the sort of committed grass-roots support needed to oust Mr. Bush from the White House.

Mr. Lieberman's decision not to compete in the Iowa precinct caucuses Jan. 19 heightened the importance of a good showing by him in the New Hampshire primaries eight days later. But with two other New Englanders running, Dr. Dean and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, he has made little headway here, obliging his campaign now to point to the South Carolina and other primaries Feb. 3 as his breakout events.

Mr. Gore said in withdrawing from the 2004 race that he intended to maintain a strong voice in party and national politics. Throughout Mr. Gore's career he has been a prominent ally of labor and the black community, two key Democratic constituencies. His early Dean endorsement promises him a high-profile position as the campaign proceeds through the primaries and into the general election, if Dr. Dean is nominated.

More important, the endorsement could mark the beginning of a steamroller effect for Dr. Dean as he heads into the Iowa caucuses, where polls show him in a tight race with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and far ahead of the primary field in New Hampshire.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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