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The Washington Quarterly 25.3 (2002) 209-215

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Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

Charles E. Cook Jr.

Hardly a week goes by without an aspiring 2004 Democratic presidential contender either visiting Iowa or New Hampshire (the key early states) or heading out to money-rich California. Generally speaking, because of the magnitude of the undertaking and the enormous financial sum that must be raised to be a viable contender, those truly serious about taking the plunge must decide by the beginning of 2003. The final decisionmaking time is generally between the midterm election and Christmas. Between now and then, presidential wannabes test the waters, trying to ascertain the level of interest and enthusiasm among national, state, and county party leaders; large donors; and, in the key states, those activists with a track record of grassroots organizing skills.

First Things First:
Will Gore Run?

The first big question that looms large over the 2004 field is whether the 2000 Democratic standard-bearer, former vice president Al Gore, will run. Some suggest that, given his relatively young age, his national popular-vote victory, and the narrowness of his loss in Florida, the nomination should be his for the asking. It also may be true that Gore was the biggest political loser from the September 11 tragedy.

Clearly, Gore desperately wants to run again to capture the job that eluded him by 537 votes in Florida or one vote on the U.S. Supreme Court, depending on your perspective. It is also true that a great many fundraisers [End Page 209] and labor leaders in the Democratic Party establishment are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the presidency in 2000 was Gore's to lose, and he did. Many would rather see him deported than seek the nomination again two years from now.

A slightly more nuanced view of Gore's performance is that his 2000 loss was partially of his own making and partially beyond his control. If Gore had been a dynamic and charismatic candidate, he almost certainly would have won the election, given Bush's scant margin of victory in Florida. On the other hand, Bush was not the most charismatic and dynamic opponent around; indeed, he seemed to be every high school English teacher's nightmare graduate. Had Gore not visibly and annoyingly sighed eight times during the first debate and exaggerated several times during that September, he probably would have won. At the same time, arguably the story of Bush's September 1976 arrest in Maine for driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol that broke the weekend before the election was just as damaging.

Gore trailed in most polls until the August Democratic convention in Los Angeles when he chose Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to be his running mate. Some maintain that the selection of the squeaky-clean Lieberman created a stark contrast from the continuous ethical problems of President Bill Clinton and his administration, portraying Gore in a new light. Up to that point, almost everything that Gore had done had been predictable—contributing to his caricature as a political automaton. Arguably, the choice of Lieberman helped sever the umbilical cord that tied Gore to Clinton and pulled him down among key swing voters who approved of the president's performance in office but deplored his personal behavior and tortured relationship with truthfulness. Others say that Gore finally emerged from Clinton's shadow at the convention and, to many voters' surprise, they actually liked what they saw.

For whatever reason, Gore not only emerged from the Los Angeles convention ahead of Bush in the polls but held the lead through Labor Day—the traditional beginning of the general election campaign—and into September. Not until after the first debate, when Gore was caught in some embarrassing exaggerations, did he stumble in the polls and continue to fall until the very end of the campaign. Interestingly, in almost every poll, Gore trailed by at least two or three points going into the weekend before the election, but ultimately won the popular vote by one percentage point. Either [End...


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