Former Vice President Al Gore's endorsement of Howard Dean has shaken up the race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. The former Vermont governor was already near the top of polls in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire and the Gore endorsement could create an air of inevitability that Mr. Dean will emerge as the party's choice to take on President Bush in next year's election. But no votes have been cast yet and Mr. Dean's rivals are not backing down.
In endorsing Howard Dean, Al Gore urged Democrats to unite around him as the candidate best able to defeat President Bush in 2004.
The former vice president cited two main factors in his decision. The first was Howard Dean's ability to stir up grass roots support for his candidacy. And the second was their shared view that the war in Iraq was a mistake.
"Well, excuse me, he was the only major candidate who made the correct judgment about the Iraq war," Mr. Gore said.
The Dean campaign has been riding high for months now and the Gore endorsement adds a sense of momentum that could convince some Democrats that Howard Dean is now unstoppable in his quest for the party's presidential nomination.
Mr. Dean talked about the boost from the Gore endorsement on NBC's Today program.
"Al Gore got 500,000 more votes than George Bush did and I think he better represents where this country needs to be going," Mr. Dean said. "And I am really, really proud of his endorsement and I plan to take this country in a very different direction than this president has."
Political experts say that from a strategic point of view, the timing of the Gore endorsement could be a huge boost for the Dean campaign, coming just six weeks before the first votes are cast in Iowa, January 19.
Jack Pitney is a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Los Angeles. He spoke with VOA News Now.
"There is no question now. Dean is the frontrunner," he said. "That was already becoming clear when he leapt out ahead in fundraising. He also gained some unexpected union endorsements. But this is just the proverbial icing on the cake. This definitely makes it clear that Howard Dean is the person to beat in the Democratic primary race."
But there are eight other Democratic candidates and most of Howard Dean's success so far has been attributed only to good poll ratings in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Mr. Dean's rivals say the experts should wait and see until Democratic voters begin voting in the primaries next month.
"And the other thing I am certain of is that we are not going to have a coronation," said presidential candidate and North Carolina Senator John Edwards. "The Republicans have coronations. We have campaigns. We have elections. And that is exactly what is going to happen in this particular case."
And while the Gore endorsement improves the odds of Howard Dean becoming the Democratic nominee, it also means the other candidates will increasingly focus their fire on him instead of President Bush in an effort to weaken his lead.
Robert Lieber is a former Gore campaign adviser who now teaches politics at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.
"This really does separate Dean from the rest of the candidates," he noted. "He is now out there in front and what you typically see is the others trying to stop the candidacy of the frontrunner in hopes that they themselves may emerge in a more crowded field as the eventual nominee."
It is likely that someone will emerge from the primary contests next year to be the Democratic alternative to Howard Dean. Most of the experts believe that role is most likely to go to one of three rivals - retired General Wesley Clark, Senator John Edwards or possibly Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt.