- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

State Democratic chairmen are increasingly doubtful whether Al Gore will make a third run for the presidency. They may resent him even if he does.
Interviews with Democratic state leaders, some of whom did not want to be identified, revealed an astonishing level of complaints and criticism toward their party's 2000 presidential nominee. They cite Mr. Gore's aloofness, his class-warfare politics, his decision to dismiss the conservative South, his strange absence from party events this year and his reluctance to mount an aggressive, sustained attack against President Bush's policies.
Mr. Gore "just wrote off the South," said South Carolina Chairman Richard Harpootlian, who thinks the former vice president's populist "people vs. the powerful" campaign theme turned off voters by the thousands across the South and elsewhere in the country.
"If you want white Southerners to consider voting for Democrats, that kind of populist rhetoric won't work," Mr. Harpootlian told me.
Mr. Gore has not been in South Carolina this year, but Democratic Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts two of Mr. Gore's rivals have, repeatedly. "Edwards has been to my state four times. Kerry's been here twice," Mr. Harpootlian said. House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt has visited three times and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut "has been here, too."
"We'd love to see him in Iowa and we have not," state chairwoman Sheila McGuire Riggs told the New York Times at the Democratic National Committee meeting in Las Vegas last weekend.
"I get the feeling that he does not really have the fire in his belly to run again, but has not reached that decision yet," another Southern state chairman told me. "He seems to have been invisible lately." Massachusetts Chairman Phillip Johnston, who is backing Mr. Kerry, agrees. "I'm not totally convinced Gore's running. He's not acting like someone who is completely committed to running," he said.
If Mr. Gore does run, "he will face stiff opposition from within the party," Mr. Johnston told me. "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.
"I do not sense any strong desire on the part of Democratic activists to have a rerun of the 2000 race between Bush and Gore," he said.
Such talk is premature, say other Democratic chairmen and party strategists. "It's far too early to write Gore's political obituary. Not all of the people who have been mentioned as potential rivals for the nomination have been that impressive," said Massachusetts Democratic pollster Tubby Harrison.
But Mr. Harpootlian, uncommitted in the party's early presidential rivalries, told me: "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."
Indeed it is. Messrs. Edwards, Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle have been crisscrossing the country, speaking to every Democratic forum they can find. Mr. Gore, on the other hand, has been making far fewer appearances and is fighting with party centrists in the Democratic Leadership Council.
DLC leaders, including Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Gore's former running mate, have sharply criticized his "people vs. the powerful" message as a turnoff for moderate, investor-class voters who went for Bush in 2000.
The DLC was a key ally in the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign. Engaging in a bitter battle with an old ally over party ideology at this stage in his political career spells trouble for the former vice president.
Still, Mr. Gore remains popular with many rank-and-file Democrats, though he has lost some of his support. A survey of likely Democratic voters by pollster John Zogby found that 47 percent said Mr. Gore "deserves the 2004 Democratic nomination," but a sizable 36 percent said someone else should get the nomination and another 17 percent were undecided.
One thing is sure in the coming two-year cycle for the party's nomination, "Al Gore does not automatically get the nomination," said Texas Democratic Chairman Molly Beth Malcolm.
The political environment has changed dramatically for Mr. Gore in just the last few weeks. He has seen the DLC turn against him. Mr. Lieberman has sharply criticized his campaign rhetoric and now hints privately to friends that he may run for president whether Mr. Gore runs or not, according to my sources.
Mr. Gore is no longer a sitting vice president, but a former vice president who is a two-time loser in the presidential sweepstakes. His rivals in the party say that, with the economy he was handed, Mr. Gore should have buried Mr. Bush in 2000. But he blew it with a polarizing class-warfare campaign that wrote off the South, instead of following Mr. Clinton's center-left coalition playbook.
Now Mr. Gore faces a highly popular incumbent in Mr. Bush who, if the economy continues to grow, will be very hard to beat in 2004 that is, if Mr. Gore decides to run. Right now, for a lot of Democrats, that's not a sure thing.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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