• U.S.

Heeeee’s Back!

5 minute read
Tamala M. Edwards

Al Gore must take comfort in the story of Andrew Jackson. A Tennessean like Gore, Jackson won the popular vote in the presidential election of 1828 but lost the election itself; a lot of folks thought he was robbed. Four years later, Old Hickory won the White House in a landslide. That may help explain why Gore has chosen, as his first big public moment after eight months in the post-election wilderness, to deliver the keynote address at next month’s Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Iowa–the same high-profile party event at which Gore, in 2000, played oratorical one-on-one with Bill Bradley, and won. “You don’t go to Iowa for the bratwurst,” says a former adviser who thinks Al is getting itchy about 2004. “It’s a sign he’s likely to run.”

At the very least, he’s keeping his options open. Ask the former Vice President if he plans to try again, says Donna Brazile, his campaign manager last year, and “he just smiles.” (A recent CNN/USA Today poll had Gore as the early front runner for the 2004 Democratic nomination, with the support of 34% of those polled.) But Democratic power brokers aren’t smiling at the thought of a Gore comeback. While most say publicly that it’s too early to discuss the idea, in private many of them are dead set against a Gore-Bush rematch.

“Al Gore is a wonderful human being, but he should not run again,” says the state chairman of a crucial Democratic donor state. “Donors tell me they dread the call from his people, and I tell them to be candid. This is a message he’s going to hear from a number of people.” Top Democratic strategists and fund raisers blame Gore’s loss not on the Florida recount or the Supreme Court but on Gore himself–his lame performance, inept campaign and stubborn mishandling of Bill Clinton. Indeed, party leaders on both coasts say Gore must patch his rocky relations with Clinton. But those close to Gore still defend his distance from the scandal-plagued President, and say they hope these next four years further separate the two in the public mind. One source close to Clinton says the former President would support Gore, “but that presupposes Gore asks–and I don’t think he’ll bring himself around to it.”

For any of that to matter, Gore must find a way to reintroduce himself to Americans, to convince them–somehow–that he’s not the sore loserman but the funny, self-deprecating guy who conceded the election in the most graceful speech of his life. But as Gore tries to make yet another first impression, you have to wonder about his stage managing. Last week he held a bipartisan conference alongside former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, a two-time loser for the G.O.P. nomination. Then Gore ran an election academy in Nashville meant to train 25 young people to be good Democratic field operatives. He hoped it would come off like a civics lesson; others wondered if he was trying to keep his war paint fresh.

Those close to Gore say, implausibly, that he has not dwelt on his loss. Instead, they say, he has focused on traveling, teaching, giving little-noticed speeches and writing a book with Tipper about strengthening families. He has stoked up his political action committee, and he’s stumping on behalf of Democrats like New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey. But what does he think about last year? Few can say. An associate recalls asking Gore what he thought the mistakes of the 2000 election had been. “He gave me a look that said, ‘Well, I won, didn’t I?,'” the associate says. That we-wuz-robbed zeal may keep party stalwarts perking–New Hampshire state chairwoman Kathy Sullivan says that at a recent picnic, she was besieged by people who think Gore deserves a “do-over”–but it isn’t likely to do the trick with voters over the long haul.

Although he has maintained a polite public silence about George W. Bush, Gore has privately been clear about the deficiencies he sees in the current President. During the welcome reception at last week’s political academy, he munched on barbecue and salted his vacation talk with jabs at Bush for abdicating responsibility in the Middle East and backing out of the ABM Treaty with Russia. “He’s particularly upset about the environmental decisions and the economic priorities of the [Bush] budget,” says an intimate. “That would be the fuel for his running.”

After eight months at idle, friends say, Gore’s engine is back in tune. Brazile visited with him last week, and the two watched the Titans play ball in Nashville. I was so tired, she told Gore. Me too, he replied. But now I’m rested, she said. Me too, he answered. “And now I’m ready to go,” she finished. Gore smiled. “Me too.”

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