- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2002

Democratic officials around the country have been saying for months that Al Gore would not run again for president, but no one in the news media believed them.
Democratic campaign advisers in New Hampshire, for example, said the week before Mr. Gore's announcement Sunday that they could not find any party activists who had heard from him in many months.
"All the other possible candidates have been making contacts with the activists in the state for quite some time now," but not Mr. Gore, said Jim Demers who is Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's New Hampshire primary strategist.
The signs were building throughout the summer and fall. First, Mr. Gore snubbed the centrist-leaning Democratic Leadership Council, the group that helped Bill Clinton win the presidency in 1992, by not attending its summer meeting.
DLC founder Al From and even Mr. Gore's running mate Joe Lieberman sharply criticized him at the July conference for running a class-warfare campaign that turned off millions of swing voters. Mr. Gore retaliated by being the only presidential hopeful who did not to show up.
Party leaders around the country were telling Gore partisans that they wanted a fresh face, that they did not want the 2004 campaign to be a replay of the bitter 2000 electoral battle. At the same time, Mr. Gore saw his political base melting beneath him. He could not count on carrying any part of the South now against President Bush, even his home state of Tennessee.
His once-modulated positions suddenly turned sharply leftward. He bashed Mr. Bush's policies toward Iraq after he had supported them earlier this year. He embraced a government-run, single-payer health-care system, even though he strongly opposed that approach in his 2000 campaign against Bill Bradley.
But the biggest reason behind Mr. Gore's decision had more to do with his sober analysis of the political trends sweeping the country.
The voters had taken a significant turn to the right in November in the congressional elections, in large part because of Mr. Bush's high job-approval rating and personal popularity, which showed no signs of declining.
Mr. Bush could be vulnerable in 2004 only if the economy worsens or if a war in Iraq turned into a debacle. But some advisers told Mr. Gore they saw the economy turning upward over the next two years, especially if the tax cuts were accelerated. And if Mr. Bush moves to disarm Saddam Hussein, it will be done quickly and decisively.
Mr. Gore had capped his political career with one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history and had won the popular vote, to boot, despite Mr. Clinton's deeply polarized, scandal-ridden presidency. Better to bow out now at the top of his game than risk a humilating, Mondale-like defeat, he reasoned.
Who are the winners and losers in the aftermath of Mr. Gore's decision?
Certainly, they must have been cheering the news of Mr. Gore's departure in the West Wing. He could still stir his party's liberal passions with another class-warfare campaign, but it would have rekindled all the bitter memories of the Florida electoral battle and the Supreme Court decision that settled it.
So now Mr. Bush faces a growing field of Democratic hopefuls who, with few exceptions, are little-known to the public at large. Virtually all of them are in Congress, an institution that has a poor achievement record in modern presidential politics. No sitting member of Congress has won the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960. Six of the last seven presidential elections have been won by former governors.
If anyone in the flock of Democratic hopefuls is helped by Mr. Gore's decision, it may be Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
The history of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation party primary is that the next-door neighbor candidate usually wins there. Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis won it in 1988. So did the state's Sen. Paul Tsongas.
"Kerry comes in with a tremendous advantage, coming from next door," Mr. Demers told me. "The Boston TV market is a significant part of New Hampshire," so New Hampshire voters "will see a lot more TV coverage of his presidential campaign than any other."
Notably, New Hampshire polls taken a few weeks ago showed Mr. Kerry and Mr. Gore in a dead heat. Mr. Demers called Mr. Kerry "the frontrunner here."
Of course Mr. Kerry will have to prove to the rest of the country that a Massachusetts liberal can achieve what previous liberal nominees have not a daunting prospect.
The rest of the Democratic field, which has been stuck in the low single digits against Mr. Gore in national polls, have deep problems of their own.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is an untested and inexperienced freshman who is up for re-election in 2004. As a DLCer, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman is distrusted by his party's liberal wing. Mr. Gephardt has been on the presidential track before, perhaps one too many times. Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota cannot be Senate Democratic leader and run at the same time, and he, too, is up in '04. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is getting good early reviews in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he is at best a marginal candidate. The Rev. Al Sharpton? You've got to be kidding.
In other words, things aren't looking so good for the Democrats in this presidential election cycle, which is why Al Gore dropped out.

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

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