- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 11, 2002

Another race for president by Al Gore is increasingly doubtful, Democratic state chairmen say, and if he does run it will be a tough fight for the nomination because party activists are looking for a fresh face to challenge President Bush.
His fellow Democrats are less reluctant to criticize Mr. Gore these days, just a few months before the two-year presidential campaign cycle begins anew.
They cite the former vice president's prolonged absences from the political spotlight, his aloofness, his failure to attack Mr. Bush's policies more aggressively and the divisiveness of his "the people vs. the powerful" message in the 2000 campaign.
State party chairmen convening for a weekend meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Las Vegas said they were picking up not only growing disgruntlement about Mr. Gore but early support for two likely rivals, Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Richard A. Harpootlian, South Carolina state chairman, said the former senator from Tennessee "wrote off the South" in his 2000 campaign and since has neglected South Carolina even as other presidential hopefuls have made repeat visits.
"You've got to carry some of these Southern states or we can't win," Mr. Harpootlian said. "I'd love for him to come to South Carolina, but he'd better get here soon or it will be too late."
Interviews with other state Democratic chairmen elicited similar doubts and resentment.
"I'm not totally convinced Gore's running. He's not acting like someone who is completely committed to running," said Phillip Johnston, Massachusetts party chairman.
"If he runs, he will face stiff opposition from [within] the party. This is going to be a highly competitive race, and Gore will be one of several candidates, and that's what I'm picking up from my colleagues around the country. I think many people would like to see a fresh face," Mr. Johnston said.
"I don't sense any strong desire on the part of Democratic activists to have a rerun of the 2000 race between Bush and Gore," he said. "Edwards has support among a number of state chairs from the South. Kerry is the second choice."
Mr. Edwards has visited South Carolina four times this year and Mr. Kerry twice, Mr. Harpootlian said. House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri has swung by three times. And Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Mr. Gore's running mate in 2000, "was here, too," he said.
"I can't think of one chair who is strongly committed to Al Gore. Everybody else is looking for another candidate, and that's very telling," Mr. Harpootlian said.
Mr. Gore angered many in the Democratic Leadership Council when he did not join a half-dozen presidential hopefuls at the DLC's summer meeting earlier this month in New York, even though he was in town having lunch with his book publisher not far from the event.
Some party leaders theorize that Mr. Gore believes he does not need to attend as many party events as his rivals because he is owed the nomination after the closeness of the 2000 election. But such assumptions would be a mistake, they say.
"We don't owe anybody anything, except to make sure we pick the best nominee to run against Bush," Mr. Harpootlian said.
"Al Gore does not automatically get the nomination. That is very clear," Molly Beth Malcolm, Texas Democratic chairman, told the New York Times.
A survey of nearly 400 likely Democratic voters by pollster John Zogby found that although 47 percent agreed that Mr. Gore "deserves the 2004 Democratic nomination," 36 percent said the nomination should go to someone else. Another 17 percent were not sure.
In good news for Mr. Gore, support for his possible rivals remained in the low single digits.
Fellow Democrats at the DLC gathering in New York, including Mr. Lieberman, complained that Mr. Gore's "the people vs. the powerful" campaign theme was needlessly divisive and turned off centrist swing voters.
Mr. Gore responded a few days later, saying that "standing up for 'the people, not the powerful' was the right choice in 2000."
Mr. Harpootlian is among Democrats who disagree with him.
"If you want white Southerners to consider voting for Democrats, that kind of populist rhetoric won't work," the South Carolina chairman said.
Dennis White, Ohio chairman, argues that it is still too early to be discussing the party's 2004 presidential nomineer.
"If Democrats don't focus on elections this year and rebuilding the party, it is not going to [matter]," he said.
"The jury is still out as to who should be our nominee," Georgia chairman Calvin Smyre said. "Everybody at the grass roots in Georgia is focused on state and local elections. The presidential campaign isn't on the radar screen."
And, Democratic pollster Tubby Harrison warns, "it is far too early to start writing Gore's political obituary."


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