Already, it's here: Jockeying begins for 2004

Al Gore and other potential Democratic contenders meet in Florida this weekend to test early messages.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Fifteen months after the conclusion of one of the nation's most gripping electoral dramas, Al Gore is heading to back to the site of the 2000 Florida recount to rub elbows with rank-and-file Democrats – and perhaps begin building support for a 2004 run.

This time, however, he could be in for an even tougher battle.

Although the next presidential election is still more than two years away, many top Democrats have already begun jostling for the nomination. At least four will make appearances along with Mr. Gore at the Florida Democratic Convention this weekend – including Gore's former running mate Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

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With President Bush facing some of his sharpest criticism in months over his handling of the Middle East crisis, the flocking of so many Democrats to Florida signals that domestic politics are heating up, after a long hiatus. It also points to the highly competitive nature of the Democratic primary field.

Analysts say the former vice president still has a number of advantages – including name recognition, and a sense among some Democrats that he deserves another shot. Still, Gore's poll numbers have steadily declined over the past year, while Mr. Bush's have soared in the wake of Sept. 11.

As a result, many see the reception Gore gets from Florida Democrats – who were most directly affected by the recount – as a key test of his ability to mount a comeback.

"It's the first time many of these folks will have seen Gore and Lieberman since the election two years ago," notes Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "Certainly, there will be an undercurrent of the 2000 elections that will flow through the entire weekend," he says. "But I don't know how it's going to play."

From Florida, a tough road

Historically, only a few candidates have come back from unsuccessful presidential campaigns to capture the White House – Grover Cleveland, for example, and Richard Nixon. More often, losing candidates lose again – by wider and wider margins. Adlai Stevenson's second campaign was less successful than his first; on his third try, he failed to get his party's nomination.

And while memories of the recount may generate some sympathy or even outrage on behalf of the former vice president, he's likely to face an equally strong undercurrent of hostility.

Many Democrats – even those who were among his most ardent supporters in 2000 – blame Gore for losing an election they feel he should have won easily, and do not want him to be the party's nominee.

"A lot of people in the party would rather see Al Gore deported than run for president again," says political analyst Charlie Cook.

The turning point for Gore, according to Mr. Cook, may have been Sept. 11. Before that, he was polling close to even with Bush – but in the months following, his popularity declined as Bush's support soared.

Still, others argue, despite all the criticism he's faced, Gore remains the preeminent frontrunner.

Specifically, while the party's elites may be hoping for a new face, Gore retains the support of many rank-and-file voters. His poll numbers may have dropped from the 40s to the 20s, but he's still well ahead of all competitors – most of whom are polling in the single digits.

Gore stays on top – and defines race

"Having run nationally four times, he's got 100 percent name identification among Democratic primary voters, and he remains popular among that group," says Tom Ochs, political director of the New Democrat Network. "The definition of the race will be determined in large part by whether Gore gets in or not." If Gore runs, Mr. Ochs says, every other candidate will have to define himself against him – and face an uphill climb.

Many Democrats have been working to increase their name recognition – and to raise money, analysts note. Senators Edwards, Kerry, and Lieberman have spent a notable amount of time on the road, particularly in states such as New Hampshire and Iowa, which hold the first primary contests.

But even among that group, the candidate with the highest poll numbers – Lieberman – has promised not to run if Gore decides to try again.

Gore has said he won't make any decisions about running until after midterm elections in November.

Out of exile, into the race

But in recent months, Gore has been emerging from self-imposed political exile – making campaign appearances for congressional candidates and holding fundraisers. He was spotted meeting with one of his top former campaign aides at a hotel in Cambridge, Mass.

And political observers everywhere took note when he shaved his beard.

"He's doing everything he needs to do ... to set himself up to run," says Ochs.

Lately, as Gore has made more public appearances, his poll numbers have stopped their post-Sept. 11 slide and begun to plateau, says pollster John Zogby.

If Gore's reemergence causes his numbers to rise once more, that could make it even harder for anyone to catch up.

"If we start to see his numbers tick up, I think you'll start to see the number of Democrats in the race tick down," says Mr. Zogby.

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