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With an Eye on '04 Campaigns, Democrats Converge on Florida

Politics: As Gore returns to the spotlight, many in the party are displaying a distinct lack of enthusiasm over the prospect he'll run again.

April 12, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Returning to the center of the storm, former Vice President Al Gore will address a convention of Florida Democrats on Saturday in his most visible political appearance since he conceded the state--and the presidency--to George W. Bush in December 2000.

For Gore, the event is not only a homecoming but a test of strength: He will share a stage with several other Democrats exploring bids for the party's 2004 presidential nomination. And the convention comes at a time when many Democratic insiders are displaying a distinct lack of enthusiasm about the prospect of another presidential race by Gore, who virtually disappeared from view last year.

Even among the rank and file, Gore's image appears to have suffered: a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Thursday found that a plurality of Democrats say they prefer he not run again.

"He needs once again to establish himself and essentially become relevant for the era today," veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart said. "The party regulars are anxious to move forward and he has to prove he is not the candidate of yesterday."

Against that backdrop, the weekend's Democratic gathering in Orlando is looming as a surprisingly important early test for Gore. Reflecting that, some of his aides are promising his most "publicly partisan" speech since the 2000 campaign.

Expectations Are for a Strong Showing

Gore's supporters are expecting an enthusiastic reception from Florida Democrats still convinced he was cheated in the state's disputed recount; state party officials essentially have built time into the schedule for a floor demonstration of support.

But his rivals, playing the political expectation game, say anything less than a rapturous response likely would raise questions about the depth of grass-roots enthusiasm for another Gore presidential bid.

"This is one state where it is set up for Gore not to do badly," said a top advisor to another Democratic hopeful appearing over the weekend. "If he doesn't hit a home run, it's another piece of that story of doubt."

The event, at a resort near Walt Disney World, will mark another escalation in political skirmishing that still is largely invisible to the public, but already is bubbling with activity. Also appearing will be three Democratic senators who have been exploring a race for the White House--John Edwards of North Carolina, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. Joining them will be Connecticut's other senator, Christopher J. Dodd, who hasn't done any preparatory campaign work but hasn't closed the door on a candidacy.

Other Democrats considered to be potential presidential candidates include House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

In these early turns around the track, the rabbits have been Edwards and Kerry. Edwards, an articulate former trial lawyer elected in 1998, has been perhaps the most unabashedly active of all--he already has appeared at eight state party dinners, more than any of the other potential 2004 aspirants, according to the Hotline, an electronic political newsletter.

And his political action committee has found a unique variant on the perennial strategy of courting Iowa and New Hampshire, which hold the first two nominating contests: The PAC loaned dozens of computers to party officials in each state.

"The more people see Edwards, the more impressed they get," said Hollywood Democratic activist Lynne Wasserman, who recently sponsored a fund-raiser for the senator.

Edwards has acquired enough of a buzz that he's already sparked a backlash from skeptics who say his speeches are heavier on style than on content. "All of the focus among the 100 people in Washington who care about this is: Isn't he new, isn't he different. But where's the beef?" said a senior advisor to another potential candidate.

Kerry has been more visible in Washington, leading the environmentalist fight on key issues in the Senate's debate on energy legislation. Like Edwards, Kerry is systematically courting activists in the key states; in Florida this weekend, his schedule is crowded with meetings with labor leaders and party donors.

Lieberman, Gore's running mate in 2000, also is traveling steadily. But Lieberman has not been able to organize as aggressively as Edwards or Kerry because he repeatedly has declared that he will not run in 2004 if Gore does.

Gephardt hasn't as overtly been building a campaign. But his advisors say he doesn't need to do as much spadework if he decides to run because of his long-standing connections (including those forged in his unsuccessful 1988 presidential bid) with party leaders in key states and organized labor.

Daschle has been something of an enigma: Despite polls showing him provoking considerable interest among Democratic primary voters, operatives for the other possible candidates say they see no sign of him actively constructing a campaign.

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