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What Impact Will Al Gore's Absence Have for Democrats in 2004? - 2002-12-16

Former Vice President Al Gore's decision not to run for president in 2004 means that the battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination is now wide open.

Al Gore announced his decision on the CBS program 60 Minutes. He said that while he had the energy and drive to make another bid for the White House, he was concerned that his campaign would be drawn back to his narrow loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 election.

"I think that a campaign that would be a rematch between myself and President Bush would inevitably involve a focus on the past that would, in some measure, distract from the focus on the future that I think all campaigns have to be about," Mr. Gore explained.

Many Democrats were relieved at Al Gore's decision.

Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne says many in the party wanted a fresh face to challenge President Bush in 2004. "I think the key reason for him not to run again was that he didn't want to lose again, which would end his political career. There was a lot of resentment that built up in the Democratic Party because they thought that he should have won and that he blew it," Mr. Wayne said.

Perhaps the most immediate beneficiary of Mr. Gore's decision is Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. He had pledged not to run for president if Mr. Gore decided to run again. He now says it is likely he will run.

"I am going to take a few more weeks to do some final thinking. This is a big decision. It has to come from not just my head but from my heart and soul," Mr. Lieberman said.

Al Gore's absence in the field means there is no front-runner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

"The Gore withdrawal makes this race absolutely wide open. It is now anyone's race to win. It is more a race now like 1976, when you had no real front-runner and a relatively unknown candidate, a former governor of Georgia by the name Jimmy Carter, came in and won the nomination. It's a bit like 1992 when you had another relative unknown, Bill Clinton, come in and win the nomination. So right now, a lot of hearts are beating much faster among Democrats who think they could be president," said American University presidential historian, Allan Lichtman.

Two Democrats have already taken steps to organize campaigns, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

Several others are considering a run including Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and a New York civil rights activist, the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Allan Lichtman said two of those likely candidates may have a slight advantage. "If you were to handicap the race this early, you would obviously give the edge to Senator Lieberman because he is well known as Al Gore's vice-presidential running mate, although I must say, he didn't add great glory to that ticket. He didn't prove to be an effective campaigner. And the second person you would give the edge to is (Senator) John Kerry. He is somewhat known and he has been organizing and he has the big advantage of being a likely winner in the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation primary (in January of 2004) coming from (neighboring) Massachusetts," he said.

Though it may seem early to be talking about the 2004 election, the reality is that the candidates have to begin organizing and raising money now to prepare for the first round of caucuses and primaries, which are just a little more than a year away.