He's rested. He's shaved. And he's rarin' to go. After 16 months on the sidelines, "Fighting Al" Gore is back in the political fray. Having roused Florida Democrats with his exhortation to "never, never give up!" and bashed President Bush's environmental record on Earth Day, the former Vice-President has Democrats everywhere speculating about a 2004 comeback attempt.
But Gore faces significant obstacles if he tries for the gold ring again. For one thing, there doesn't seem to be a groundswell for him. An Apr. 29-May 1 Gallup Poll found that 49% of Democrats want Gore to sit out the race, compared to 46% who back his candidacy. In a theoretical rematch against his 2000 nemesis, polls show Gore losing by up to 40 percentage points. Even in heavily Democratic California--a state Gore won by double digits the last time around--Bush leads by seven points, according to a May 3 Field Poll.
But polls are just the beginning of Gore's woes. More important, perhaps, is the number of key Gore staffers who are assisting potential rivals--or staying on the sidelines. Campaign Chairman William Daley has left politics to serve as president of SBC Communications. Nick Baldick, Gore's point man in the pivotal states of New Hampshire and Florida, has signed up with Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.). Message guru Bob Shrum and Tad Devine, who ran the campaign's day-to-day operations, are close to Edwards, too. And Michael Whouley, the ex-Veep's chief organizer, has long-standing ties to Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). How frenzied is the competition for staff? Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile fields frequent calls from her old boss, as well as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). "But Al Sharpton took me to breakfast at the Four Seasons," she notes. "And I'm seeing John Edwards tomorrow."
While this courting may seem excessive, it is an important part of the "invisible primary." Landing top consultants and fund-raisers can raise candidates' profiles among the political chattering classes and pry open donors' wallets. And with the heavily front-loaded 2004 primary schedule, White House wannabes need to collect talent and checks earlier than ever.
Despite these setbacks, Gore would become an instant front-runner if he were to run. He has by far the highest name recognition, proven fund-raising prowess, and a track record as a vote-getter. The former Veep also has a game plan to reintroduce himself to the American people. This fall, he will campaign for Democratic candidates in key swing states. That serves two purposes: putting Gore in front of the cameras, and collecting chits now that could be called on in 2004.
What's more, the man derided as an automaton will try to humanize himself by writing a book on marriage and children with his wife, Tipper. Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family is being billed as a policy tome, but it is certain to be less wonky than Gore's previous effort, Earth in the Balance.
Gore hopes his family-friendly message resonates with both the party's liberal core and independent swing voters. But he faces an uphill battle. Many Democrats feel he had his shot in 2000 and blew an election he should have easily won. "There is a flip side to having [Gore's] high name ID," explains Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "In 2004, he may look old hat."
So it would pay to watch the invisible primary. The high-profile consultants who fly the Gore coop today might be telling a story about the Democratic primaries two years down the road. A recent slip of the tongue has heightened speculation that George W. Bush intends to name a Latino to fill a future Supreme Court vacancy. At a Cinco de Mayo event on May 3, Bush thanked "mi abogado" Alberto R. Gonzales and noted that the White House counsel had "served on the U.S.--or the Texas--Supreme Court." While Bush picked Gonzales for the Texas court, he hasn't nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court, though the Texan is rumored to be on the short list. Two weeks ago, budget analysts were worried that an unanticipated shortfall in tax revenues could double the fiscal year 2002 deficit, to nearly $100 billion. They were wrong--the numbers will be worse than that. Final figures from the April tax season suggest that the revenue shortfall will approach $80 billion. Add extra spending for a costly farm bill and anti-terrorism initiatives, and budgeteers now expect an '02 deficit of $130 billion to $140 billion. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) calls the Pentagon's possible lease of 100 Boeing 767s a taxpayer ripoff. He may not have to work hard to block the deal: The U.S. Air Force and Boeing are far apart on price. Boeing wants the lease to cover a big chunk of the plane's cost, though the deal would last only about a quarter of each plane's useful life. That might not matter if the Air Force keeps the planes after the lease. If not, the lease price would be steep. That could break up a deal.