Gore steps, gently, back into limelight

Former vice president plans to campaign for other Democrats in 2002 - as the struggle for party's leadership intensifies.

To Al Gore, it must seem an exasperatingly familiar phenomenon: Every time he's about to step into the spotlight, his former boss comes along and robs him of the moment.

This time, it was former President Bill Clinton's record-breaking book deal that splashed across front pages, overshadowing reports that Mr. Gore was preparing to take his first steps back into political life.

The contrast between the way the two men have been received is striking. Six months after Mr. Clinton left office under a cloud of questionable pardons, he was welcomed with open arms by cheering crowds in New York, as well as much of the media - cable networks even preempted a speech by President Bush to televise Clinton's Harlem homecoming.

Gore, who won the popular vote last November, has been sharply criticized for remaining silent on issues like the environment, and roundly mocked for his newly grown beard and his expanded waistline.

Clearly, Gore's "Clinton problem," which many believe may have cost him the 2000 election, hasn't gone away - and may continue to make things difficult for him, should he decide to run in 2004. But it also points to a larger problem within the Democratic Party, which is struggling to fill its power vacuum in the wake of losing the White House and its most charismatic politician.

Stepping out

With Clinton continuing to attract media attention and exert a certain hold on the party - especially with his wife now in the Senate and his former fundraiser heading the Democratic National Committee - it has been difficult for any member to come forward and claim a strong leadership role.

"No matter what Gore does when he comes out, people will compare it to Clinton's party in Harlem - and they're completely different things," says Greg Simon, a Gore adviser. "I think it's a good thing that [Gore] has stepped back a little bit and gone off the scene for a while to let other people have the stage and do what they can do. And I think it's really interesting that in that process, nobody's really emerged as the leader of the party, or has really stepped up to be the rallying point for any particular issue."

But, slowly, some appear to be trying.

Yesterday, for example, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle hammered at Mr. Bush's foreign policy, criticizing the president for "walking away" from international agreements and putting too much emphasis on missile defense.

Mr. Daschle's national prominence has been rising in the past month, after the Senate shifted from Republican to Democratic control.

He and other potential rivals to Gore can use their elected posts to show leadership, while the road to 2004 is trickier for the former vice president.

Gore's current plans, for example, don't exactly make for a dramatic reentry: He's leading a workshop for political operatives in Nashville next week. He also has indicated plans to campaign for other Democrats, such as New Jersey gubernatorial candidate James McGreevey, and he is founding a political action committee to help congressional candidates in the 2002 elections. Both are signs that his political career is far from over.

And he remains the Democrats' most obvious frontrunner for 2004. Indeed, a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Gore as the top choice among Democrats, by a 13-percent margin. It also showed that, were the election to be held today, Gore would receive 48 percent of the vote, to Bush's 49 percent - a result Mr. Simon finds striking. "When you consider Bush has been a sitting president now for almost [seven] months, and he still would be just one point above the guy he beat, that says something," he says.

Leadership vacuum in party

But the poll also found that voters saw no clear leader of the Democratic Party. The top response - House minority leader Dick Gephardt - garnered only 9 percent, with Daschle at 7 percent, Gore at 6 percent, and Bill Clinton at 5 percent. Perhaps most tellingly, 51 percent of respondents had no opinion.

This leadership void may open the door for a fresh face to step in, such as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Others point out that Gore may also have to overcome some lingering resentment among Democrats who feel he blew the last election.

"For an awful lot of Americans, he's a little tarnished," says Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution here. "The truth is, he wasn't a very good candidate. He had an awful lot going for him - the economy was very strong, and the nation was at peace."

But others who lost close elections have come back and won the White House. Andrew Jackson did it, as did Richard Nixon.

In President Nixon's case, the Vietnam War had ripped the country and the Democratic Party apart prior to his successful run in 1968.

A more interesting parallel, Mr. Hess suggests, might be that of William Howard Taft, who was Teddy Roosevelt's handpicked successor to the White House. As a very young ex-president, Roosevelt went off to shoot lions in Africa, but soon got bored and returned home, where he ran against Taft, splitting the Republican Party. Obviously, Clinton can't run again, "but nevertheless, it was tough being William Howard Taft in the shadow of Teddy Roosevelt, and it's tough being Al Gore in the same way.

"In some ways, ultimately, Roosevelt brought Taft down," Hess continues. "I won't carry the parallel too far, but nevertheless - it is a problem."

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