A 'new' Al Gore returns: front, not quite center

Two years after his quest for the presidency ended on the steps of the US Supreme Court, Al Gore is back - and he's presenting a whole new side of himself. In a flurry of recent TV appearances promoting his new book on families, the former vice president has been seen:

• Driving a rental car through Iowa while singing "On the Road Again," on ABC's 20/20.

• Telling talk-show host David Letterman that he's always grown a beard on vacation - it's just that the period after the 2000 election was the longest vacation he'd ever had.

• Floating as a disembodied head in a jar on the FOX cartoon show "Futurama," where he's dubbed "the inventor of the environment."

But beyond poking fun at himself, Mr. Gore has also been taking some bold policy positions. At a time when the Democratic Party is reeling from midterm defeats, Gore has garnered new notice as one of the few Democrats who took pointed stands against the Bush administration on issues from war with Iraq to the tax cut.

Last week, he caused an additional stir by telling a New York audience he has come to favor a "single-payer" national health insurance plan, which typically means the government pays all medical bills through taxes - a far more radical scheme than he endorsed in the 2000 campaign, and one that even many Democrats regard as politically risky.

For a politician who is often associated with stiffness and caution, it all seems strikingly uninhibited. And while critics may call it just another "reinvention," Gore supporters say that if he does run again, he'll conduct a very different campaign.

"This is the first time in his life when he has not been an incumbent," says Elaine Kamarck, a longtime Gore adviser. "He has a sense of liberation."

THE spate of publicity is ostensibly tied to the release of Gore's new book, "Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family," which he wrote with his wife, Tipper, and of a companion volume of photographs they edited. But Gore's reemergence in the public eye also comes at a time of intense behind-the-scenes jockeying for the 2004 Democratic nomination. Most contenders are expected to make decisions about the race by the year's end - including Gore, who has said that he'll make a public announcement shortly after the holidays.

Ms. Kamarck says some recent conversations with Gore lead her to believe he's definitely running - though at other times, she says, he seems so uninterested that she's convinced he might not run, after all.

If he does ultimately jump in, he's unlikely to have a clear path to the nomination. Despite Gore's advantage in name recognition, other prominent Democrats - including former House minority leader Richard Gephardt, Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, and Gore's former running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman - have laid the groundwork for runs of their own. While Gore kept a low profile throughout the past year, working on his book and making some money in the private sector, these men have been busy traveling to key primary states, recruiting top strategists, and building up war chests.

Indeed, some Democrats imply that Gore has significant ground to make up.

"We've got a primary here in 15 months - and I haven't heard from him," says Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "Not a peep, not a whisper, not a letter, not a note."

MOREOVER, many within the party's upper ranks seem to regard Gore, fairly or not, as damaged goods. A recent Los Angeles Times poll of members of the Democratic National Committee found that only 35 percent wanted Gore to run again, while 48 percent said he should not. Gore was still the top candidate overall, with 19 percent of members backing him, but Senator Kerry was close behind with 18 percent, followed by Senator Edwards with 13 percent and Congressman Gephardt with 10 percent.

"This will be a tough campaign [for the nomination]," says Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate Democratic group. "But I don't put a premium on early unity," he adds, saying he expects the party and the eventual nominee - whether Gore or someone else - will be strengthened by a vigorous debate.

Much of this debate will concern the party's direction - specifically, whether it continues to hew to the centrist path of the Clinton years, or shifts to the left. Gore offered a notably populist message during the 2000 campaign, with his "people vs. the powerful" slogan (which his running mate, Senator Lieberman, later criticized). His recent speeches on Iraq and healthcare may imply a further leftward drift.

Mr. From says this would be a mistake: "If the Democratic Party wants to win the presidency in 2004, they're not going to win on the left fringe," he says. He points out that in 1962, after Democrats unexpectedly picked up midterm seats, the GOP shifted right and nominated Barry Goldwater - and "they got clobbered."

But others say Gore's politics aren't all that far left, anyway. Kamarck points out that his recent Iraq speech, while arguing for caution and a multilateral approach, didn't rule out the use of force. "He's genuinely hard to categorize," she says. And Gore may be playing it smart by reaching out to the party's left-wing base, whose support he'd need in a primary battle.

A recent Quinnipiac Poll found that he is still the heavy favorite among Democratics nationwide: 32 percent choose him over other candidates. "Democrats know that Gore won the popular vote last time - and a third of them said, yeah, they like Gore," says Maurice Carroll, poll director. "That's pretty good."

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