WASHINGTON — The story that all political writers are trying to sniff out these days is this: Will Al Gore run again?
I was certain that, after he had won the popular vote, Mr. Gore would run again. I thought he would be entitled. And I thought the party would, almost automatically, give him another chance.
I'm convinced that in those early months after the election, Gore was using that period for convalescence from that bitter battle. But it seemed he was like that fabled warrior who lay down to bleed for a while before getting up to fight again.
And I was fortified in this belief by a brief, handwritten note from Gore shortly after the election saying he would be seeing me soon. This was in response to my request that he appear at a Monitor breakfast. But something happened; he never followed up that expression of intent.
It must have begun to sink in to Gore that the Democratic Party wasn't very excited about his running again. He was finding that many Democrats thought he had made a poor race, that he should have beaten a governor who had started out with not nearly the name recognition that Gore, as a very active vice president, had gained.
So Gore has been giving the matter second thoughts and third thoughts and many more thoughts as he hides, it seems, in the shadows, trying to make up his mind.
The political realities should cause Gore to pause. I called up the pollster, John Zogby, and he said his latest findings showed that if the election were held today and the two candidates are the same as last time it would be Bush 58 percent; Gore 34 percent. Zogby also asked Democrats whether Gore "deserved" the Democratic nomination in 2004. Thirty-four percent said he deserved the nomination; 47 percent said it was time for someone new.
So what is Al Gore going to do? I called up a few of my political-writing colleagues to see how they were sizing up the Gore future.
Marty Tolchin, now editing "The Hill" and once a top reporter for The New York Times, seemed to think Gore would be making the race. "I don't know who can take it away from him," he said. "And he's been groomed for becoming president all his life. It's in his blood. But," Mr. Tolchin added, "he'll have to state his intentions of running fairly soon to keep others out."
The Chicago Sun Times columnist Robert Novak put it this way: "A lot of people say he should wait out a term before running again. But that would be hard for him. The consensus is that he will run again and get the nomination."
Paul West, a Baltimore Sun bureau chief: "My guess is that he'd like to go. I think he could raise the money.... There is no obvious other person that the party could rally around. I think he is going. But the people I talk to say he hasn't yet made up his mind."
I found a thread of deep uncertainty among others: Said Miles Benson, Newhouse News Service: "It could go either way. I just don't know. You can argue either way. That he won the popular vote and is entitled to run and will run. But you can argue that if he can't win against a relatively unknown candidate, how can he beat a well-known and popular president?"
One bureau chief who opted for anonymity had this to say: "I think he's still trying to figure out what to do. He would like to be the candidate but he just doesn't know how to do it. He seems perplexed. It's perplexing to me. I think that Gore last time was ruined by consultants. Are those same consultants now advising him on his future? I don't know."
Frankly, as I have written more than once I think there is a very attractive Al Gore out there that seemed to disappear when he was out on the presidential campaign trail. At a dozen Monitor breakfasts, he was so very likable. No sighing. No boasting. Just a great guy.
So I say: If what I think is the real Al Gore will stand up and make a run for it again well, he'd have a chance in 2004.