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A 2004 Bush-Gore Rematch May Hinge on How Loser Bows Out

Politics: A dignified, grand exit would earn either man the public's gratitude, experts say, almost ensuring him his party's renomination fours years later.


AUSTIN, Texas — One will become president; the other a martyr.

And that sets up a possible rematch between Al Gore and George W. Bush in four years, no matter who prevails in the current quagmire.

A rematch becomes even more probable if one candidate bows out in a gracious manner that earns him enduring public gratitude, according to the budding consensus of many top officeholders and political analysts.

In short, if either Gore or Bush takes the longer view, he could win by losing--and defy the adage that there are "no second acts" in history or American politics.

"Before election night or the next morning, I would have said the chances for a rematch are zero, that the loser would be quickly forgotten. But we're in a different world now," said Norm Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute political analyst.

It may seem premature to start contemplating the prospects for the 2004 election amid the pending stalemate. But a farsighted exit strategy is now very much a factor for Gore and Bush. At ages 54 (Bush) and 52 (Gore), both are young enough--and have come so agonizingly close to the prize--that it isn't difficult to envision either one running again in 2004.

"Obviously, so much can happen between now and then. But you'd have to assume the presumptive nominee would be whoever lost this election," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). "I can't imagine anyone else having a better claim at this stage."

Republican strategist Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's failed 1996 presidential campaign, agreed. "I'd watch for a rematch with these gentlemen--absolutely. If the loser goes out in a dignified manner, he'll be a shoo-in for his party's nomination in four years."

Accomplishments, Economy Weigh In

That prospect becomes even more plausible if the next president, faced with a near-evenly divided Congress, gets little accomplished, and if the economy stalls.

"The loser will have millions of people nursing that grievance for four years, and that will prove invaluable," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

Indeed history shows that the candidate who concedes a closely contested race--especially after winning the popular vote but losing the electoral vote--will not only recapture his party's nomination but also stand a good chance of winning the White House, according to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

"If he [Gore] were to be magnanimous and decide: 'I've had enough. I'm going to give this to Bush because we're not going to go through recount after recount, and legal challenges,' history would tell he'll have a good shot at winning the next time," she said.

That was the scenario in 1824, Goodwin said, when John Quincy Adams won the electoral vote but not the popular vote. Andrew Jackson, who had lost, came roaring back four years later and Adams became a one-term president.

Similar parallels arose in 1876 and in 1888, she noted.

A more recent case occurred in 1960, when Richard Nixon conceded to John F. Kennedy.

"He bowed out relatively gracefully, and that gave him a ticket to future political life," Sabato recalled.

Another presidential historian, Michael Beschloss, agreed that Gore also could be reborn politically, adding that he "would have an opportunity to be almost a shadow president over the next four years--and run again." That assessment applies as well to Bush, said former Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.). A good-loser's chances of winning his party's nomination, he said, are "immeasurably enhanced."

To be sure, even a grand exit in the coming days or weeks cannot guarantee renomination.

Already, both Gore and Bush are facing criticism--not all of it veiled--for having run inept campaigns.

Some GOP strategists question Bush's campaigning, especially in the closing days, in states that he had no realistic expectation of winning, such as California and New Jersey.

Gore is being faulted for failing to take advantage of the Clinton administration's economic policies that have yielded record budget surpluses and widespread prosperity.

"Maybe I'm alone in this view," said Andrew Kohut, a Washington pollster and political analyst. "But I'd think that Gore, if he were to lose, might have a hard time capturing the nomination because he failed to win at a time of great prosperity and having a president with a 55% approval rating despite 'Clinton fatigue' and all that. Many might argue that the problems were based on the candidate and not on the issues."

One such believer is Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council and intellectual guru of centrist Democrats.

At an hour on election night when Gore was thought to have lost, From in an interview in Nashville, complained the vice president failed to "expand" his reach up the electorate's income ladder.

"He won voters [with annual incomes of] under $50,000--but they're less than half the electorate in today's electorate," From said. "And the key for a Democrat to win is to go up the income ladder."

Public's Patience Level May Also Be a Key Factor

Another danger lurking for Gore and Bush is the public's patience level.

"If [the stalemate] goes on too long, neither of these men will be elected president in 2004--regardless of who gets the White House this time around," said Robert B. Reich, former Labor secretary in the Clinton administration and now a Brandeis University professor.

Given the current state of affairs, some simply refuse to hazard a forecast at all.

"Maybe I'm incapable or unwilling or uninterested in making an estimate. So many things can happen," said retiring Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.).

"I just don't know. It feels like a rematch going on right now. This thing may go all the way to 2004."

Times staff writers Matea Gold, Aaron Zitner and Massie Ritsch contributed to this story.

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