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Insider Backing for Gore Is Tepid

Nearly half of the Democrats surveyed say he shouldn't run again for president. Sen. Kerry and Vermont Gov. Dean find support.

November 17, 2002|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

As the Democratic Party regroups from the disappointing midterm elections and begins searching for a presidential nominee, a Los Angeles Times Poll shows that nearly half of party insiders believe former Vice President Al Gore should sit out the 2004 race.

The poll, which surveyed roughly three-quarters of the membership of the Democratic National Committee, suggests that the contest is wide open and that there is a hunger for change. While 35% of respondents said Gore should run again, 48% said he should not and 17% were undecided.

The poll turned up significant backing for Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry and surprising support for Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the Democrats' leader in the House since 1989, did not fare as well as Kerry or a second national newcomer, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2000, and California Gov. Gray Davis, leader of the nation's most populous state, also were viewed with less enthusiasm. Fresh off his tight reelection win, Davis was one of the least popular of 10 possible candidates tested.

The poll found great affection for former President Clinton --viewed favorably by 96% of respondents -- but also a recognition of his polarizing effect among voters at large. More than half of those sampled said Clinton should restrict his campaigning on behalf of the party's 2004 nominee to a few selected states.

Assessing this month's midterm elections, 43% said the result -- a Republican-led Congress -- would make it easier for Democrats to regain the White House in 2004.

"If things go wrong, Republicans really have nobody else to blame," said Ron Oliver, chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party. Three in 10 said the midterm results would make Democrats' task more difficult, and the rest said the outcome would make no difference.

The DNC consists of roughly 450 local and state party leaders who make up the governing body of the national party.

Although members' views do not reflect those of the public at large, their opinions could have a significant effect on which candidate emerges as the Democrat to face President Bush in his expected reelection bid.

"The first primary is among the insiders. It's organizers, it's fund-raisers, it's these players," said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan campaign analyst in Washington. "These are the people you need to line up long before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. These are the people that form the nucleus of your campaign in each of the 50 states."

The Times Poll, concluded Thursday, found no clear-cut favorite in the prospective Democratic field. Asked who they would like to see as the party's 2004 nominee, just about half the party leaders surveyed, 46%, had no preference. Gore's name was volunteered by 13% and Kerry's by 10%.

After they were read a list of 10 prospective candidates, 19% of respondents named Gore as their favorite; 11% still had no preference. Kerry was cited by 18%, Edwards by 13% and Gephardt by 10%. Six other possible candidates were in single digits, including Lieberman at 4%.

Asked their second choice, 18% chose Kerry and a like number picked Edwards; 12% chose Gore, 11% Dean and 10% Gephardt. And 12% had no second choice.

The survey found considerable ambivalence about Gore, who won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election but lost the White House. The former vice president, who last week launched a series of high-profile appearances, said he will reveal his plans for 2004 by the end of this year.

Asked who they believed would be the strongest candidate against Bush -- regardless of their personal preferences -- more than 25% of respondents cited no one in particular. Just about two in 10 picked Gore. Kerry was named by 16% and Edwards by 13%. No other candidate polled in double digits.

Seeking New Faces

"It looks like a party that's desperately seeking fresh faces," said Cook, referring to the relative strength of Kerry, Edwards and Dean compared with Gephardt, Lieberman and Gore, all of whom have experience on the national stage. "You'd think most people wouldn't know Howard Dean if he kicked them in the shins."

The Times Poll, under the direction of Susan Pinkus, interviewed 312 of 388 selected DNC members. Those who ordinarily stay neutral until the party's nomination is settled -- such as the party's executive leadership -- as well as committee members living abroad were not contacted for the survey. Interviews were conducted by telephone Nov. 7 and 8 and Monday through Thursday. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Among those ready to support Gore, for now at least, was Mary Botkin, a DNC member from Oregon. "I think he had the presidency stolen from him and I think he deserves the opportunity to do it again, to see if he can get it," Botkin said in a follow-up interview. "The Supreme Court elected this president, not the people of the country."

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