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He'd Shed Shackles Next Time, Gore Says

Politics: He tells key backers he'd 'let it rip.' He also edges closer to declaring for 2004.

June 30, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — With a select audience of still-loyal financial donors and political partisans cheering him on, Al Gore declared Saturday that if he ran again for president, he would shed the constraints of polls, tactics and consultants that hobbled his 2000 campaign and "let it rip."

The former vice president's closed-door meeting here with several dozen key backers, an event staged in part as a show of strength to other potential Democratic contenders, edged him further toward a declaration that he wants a rematch with President Bush in 2004.

While Gore remains officially uncommitted (he promises a decision after the November congressional elections), his wife, Tipper, now says she would wholeheartedly support another run for the White House, squelching rumors about her reluctance. His daughter Karenna, also appearing here, said in even stronger terms that she wants him to go for it.

But first Gore must prove to many skeptical Democrats in Washington and across the country that he would be the party's best hope against a president who has gained considerable stature and popularity since winning the disputed 2000 election.

Modern political history suggests Gore's challenge: No defeated nominee of a major party has captured the party's nomination in the next presidential election since 1952 candidate Adlai Stevenson prevailed in the Democratic convention of 1956. Stevenson, moreover, suffered a crushing loss in his rematch with President Eisenhower.

Gore partisans say his agonizingly close defeat in 2000--winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College--indicates that he has the standing to unseat the incumbent, assuming Bush seeks reelection.

And so about 95 of them gathered here in Gore's home state of Tennessee to hear the former vice president's post-mortem of 2000 and to rally behind him for what appears to be the beginnings of another campaign.

"If I had it to do all over again, I'd just let it rip," Gore said, according to an aide and others in the room. "To hell with the polls, tactics and all the rest." The crowd leapt to its feet and cheered. It remains to be seen whether Democrats nationwide will do the same.

Many donors and Washington-based party operatives are helping other contenders, such as Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House minority leader, has his own national network and looks ready to run. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the nation's highest-ranking elected Democrat, is considering a campaign. Gore's 2000 running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, is gearing up to go for the White House if Gore doesn't (or perhaps if he does). And Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has thrown his hat into the ring.

Downplaying the Gore event, one top aide to a possible Democratic candidate said: "One weekend retreat does not solve your problems. It's about your long-term relations with donors and their belief in your political viability."

Indeed, Gore must battle the perception that if he runs, he would be a vulnerable front-runner in a hotly contested Democratic primary. "There is not the brand loyalty to Gore that there once was," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst. "It has faded dramatically."

The meeting's locale, in the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis, also underscored Gore's challenge. He lost his home state in 2000. Just across the Mississippi River lies Arkansas, another state that slipped from his grasp. If either had gone for Gore--as they did for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996--he would now be president. In part to reestablish his home base, Gore has taught courses at universities in the state, while he and his wife just closed on a $2.3-million home near Nashville.

For all his potential liabilities, some observers say Gore still has the strongest shot at the Democratic nomination. "To take it away from him," said Charles Cook, a Washington political analyst, "somebody's going to have to be very, very good."

The loyalists gathered here acknowledged their party is split. "My sense is, inside the Beltway, the network there is more of the opinion 'Anybody but Gore,' " said Alvaro Cifuentes, chairman of the Hispanic Caucus of the Democratic National Committee. "But outside the Beltway, the sense is, 'If Gore wants it, we'll go with him.' "

Without exception, those interviewed here said they would back another Gore candidacy.

"Every single person in that room is hoping that Al Gore runs," Chris Korge, a Miami attorney and party fund-raiser, told reporters after the former vice president spoke to supporters.

Said Ramesh Kapur, a fund-raiser from Massachusetts: "Al Gore is running. I think he should run. The country needs him."

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