- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2002

Al Gore's decision not to make a third try for the presidency opens up the Democratic nomination to a large and growing field of hopefuls, threatening a bitter, divisive party battle for the right to challenge President Bush in 2004.
At the same time, the former vice president's decision removes someone many considered Mr. Bush's strongest opponent. Mr. Gore was far and away the most popular Democratic choice for 2004, according to polls. Virtually all of the other Democratic contenders trailed far behind Mr. Gore in the latest head-to-head, national match-ups, and most of them are relatively unknown.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is the Democratic hopeful who probably benefits the most from Mr. Gore's decision. In recent weeks, the senator has been considered by many Democrats to be the front-runner in New Hampshire, scene of the nation's first presidential primary and a contest that party strategists say could propel him toward the nomination in what will be a compressed primary schedule.
"I think Kerry becomes the natural front-runner here in New Hampshire," said Democratic strategist Jim Demers, who is former House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt's point man in the state.
"If you look at New Hampshire's presidential primary historically, the next-door neighbor candidate usually wins here. We saw it with Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988 and with Senator Paul Tsongas in 1992," said Mr. Demers, referring to two Massachusetts politicians.
A decisive victory in New Hampshire was the springboard that propelled Mr. Dukakis through the Democratic primaries and toward the 1988 nomination. Mr. Tsongas beat Bill Clinton in New Hampshire, but his 1992 candidacy collapsed when Mr. Clinton swept Democratic primaries in the South.
"So Kerry comes in with a tremendous advantage, coming from next door. The Boston TV market is a significant part of New Hampshire. So people here have seen him on the news for quite some time, and once he starts running they will be traveling with him, so they will see a lot more TV coverage of his presidential campaign than any other," Mr. Demers said.
Mr. Kerry recently announced that he was raising money for a possible run at the White House, but he is likely to be challenged by a long line of other Democrats who have been weighing their candidacies, too.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who was the party's vice-presidential nominee in 2000, has said repeatedly that he would not run if Mr. Gore sought the nomination. With his former running mate now out of the picture, Mr. Lieberman is expected to enter the race before the year is out. Sources say he had received promises of financial support from many of Mr. Gore's biggest campaign contributors if Mr. Gore chose to stay out.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a freshman who has been pursuing an active though unannounced campaign, is believed ready to formally announce his candidacy. He hopes to run as a candidate of the South, but he is relatively unknown outside his state.
Mr. Gephardt, who stepped down last month from the House Democratic leadership post to seek the presidential nomination, is also likely to accelerate his plans. He begins with a strong base of support in New Hampshire and has made numerous visits there in the past year.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has also given signals he may run, but those close to him say it will be difficult, if not impossible, for him to mount a serious campaign and meet his party responsibilities in a narrowly divided Senate.
Mr. Gore's decision to give up presidential politics comes at a time when Mr. Bush continues to maintain high approval ratings and when Democrats suffered serious setbacks in the November midterm elections. Republicans now control both houses of Congress, a majority of the governorships and a majority of the state legislatures.
While the electorate appears to have moved right, Mr. Gore has swung to the left, attacking Mr. Bush's plans to use military force to disarm Iraq and calling for a government-run health care system, an idea he opposed in his 2000 campaign.
Democratic insiders say that while Mr. Gore continues to be popular within his party, he suffers from a number of fundamental political deficiencies.
"He does not have majority support in his home state of Tennessee, nor in the South that was once his political base," said a Democratic campaign adviser.
Mr. Gore had been hearing from many Democrats in recent months who said the party needs a fresh, new face in 2004 if it is to have a chance of defeating a popular, wartime president. Mr. Gore has also had difficultly raising money, and paychecks have had to be delayed for his campaign staff.
Democratic officials think that with Mr. Gore now out of the running, other Democrats will consider entering the field, including Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Gov. Gray Davis of California.
A number of Democratic state chairmen have been saying for months they doubted Mr. Gore would run, as he has avoided visiting key states in the past year.
"I have not heard of anyone in New Hampshire who has heard from Al Gore, while the other possible candidates have been making contacts with activists in the state for quite some time now," Mr. Demers said.


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