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The Day After, Democrats Begin Life After Gore

Times Staff Writer

Democrats on Monday began adjusting to a 2004 presidential race reshaped by the withdrawal of former Vice President Al Gore and the likely entrance of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Gore’s running mate two years ago.

In Washington, Lieberman indicated that it was likely he would join the race now that Gore has removed himself. “I [have] said I probably would run if Al Gore doesn’t run, and that remains the case,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman had pledged not to run against Gore, the man who in 2000 made him the first Jewish candidate on a major party’s presidential ticket.

Meanwhile, Gore, at a news conference in Raleigh, N.C., said that despite his decision not to seek the presidency again, he would remain politically active and would “probably endorse” one of the 2004 Democratic contenders.

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“I’m not ready to write my political epitaph because I intend to remain active politically, even though I will not be a candidate,” said Gore, who was visiting Raleigh to promote his new book, “Joined at the Heart.” “So hold off on getting the chisel and granite out.”

Inevitably, though, the focus in Democratic circles quickly turned to 2004’s potential candidates. Across the party, the broad sense was that Gore’s departure leaves the emerging contest without a clear front-runner.

“It looks a lot like 1988 did, with a lot of people who have pieces of the action but no one who dominates the whole thing,” said Democratic consultant Harrison Hickman, who polled for Gore in 2000 and would work for Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) if he runs in 2004. “There is no one with gravitational pull.”

Indeed, many Democratic analysts say that three candidates -- each with his own strongholds of support -- may share the front-runner mantle for at least the next several months.

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With Gore gone, some Democratic operatives believe that Lieberman may emerge as the leader in the national polls because of the name identification and support he established during the 2000 campaign. In his remarks Monday, Lieberman said he would announce his decision on running by early January.

“I’m going to take a few more weeks to do some final thinking,” Lieberman said. “This big decision has to come not just from my head, but from my heart and soul.”

But whatever Lieberman decides, two other candidates hold the early lead in the critical first two contests on the nomination calendar, according to recent polls.

In Iowa -- whose precinct caucuses will lead off the nomination season in mid-January 2004 -- outgoing House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) led in a recent survey sponsored by Hotline, an electronic political newsletter.

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Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses in 1988, when he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination, and still has considerable support in the state. He is expected to announce his candidacy soon.

In New Hampshire, which will hold the first primary in the nation later in January 2004, another recent Hotline poll gave a commanding lead to Sen. John F. Kerry, who comes from neighboring Massachusetts.

At a news conference Monday, Kerry -- who recently formed an exploratory committee to begin organizing support -- rejected suggestions that he has become the front-runner in New Hampshire. But Kerry’s efforts, not only in New Hampshire but nationally, appear to be gaining more momentum and notice in the last few weeks than anyone else in the field.

Beyond those three, other likely candidates include outgoing Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has begun organizing among grass-roots activists in Iowa and New Hampshire.

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Edwards, who could be strong in the South, is also nearing a final decision. Once considered a certain candidate, he has surprised supporters by an extended reassessment of his intentions.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota is examining the race more intently than many Democrats expected, though close advisors said it remains most likely he will not run.

Also considering the race are retired Gen. Wesley Clark and African American activist the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Gore’s departure will create openings for all these candidates. Although the former vice president was not attracting nearly as much institutional support as in 2000, he retained a considerable network of backers around the country.

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One party insider said operatives for Edwards and Kerry were calling Gore fund-raisers by Monday morning.

Over the long term, Gore’s departure could have the greatest impact on the competition for two constituencies with enormous influence in the nominating process.

One is organized labor, where Gore’s support, though diminished from 2000, remained substantial. His decision not to run could lead to more union backing for Gephardt, who has had close ties with labor throughout his career.

“Gephardt has support within the labor movement because of the kinds of things he’s done and the way he has spoken out, basically all through his career,” said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “But I don’t think it means ... the other candidates can’t make a case.”

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Gore’s exit also means that black voters, who remained among his most loyal supporters, will be more up for grabs. With Sharpton’s potential appeal unproven, now there may be no obvious consensus favorite for black voters.

“There is no natural for black voters,” said Donna Brazille, an African American activist who managed Gore’s 2000 campaign.

Brazille may make the competition even more complex: She is considering a plan to encourage African American leaders in several states to run favorite son or daughter candidacies in 2004.

On Monday, Gore fleshed out the process and rationale that led to his announcement on CBS’ “60 Minutes” Sunday night that he would not run in 2004.

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Gore said he decided Friday morning after meeting with his family as he rehearsed for his appearance this last weekend on “Saturday Night Live.” He said there was no “single epiphany,” but a “slow dawning on me” that an attempted rematch against President Bush would have focused “more on the past than it should have.”

He described himself as “completely at peace” with the decision and repeated his declaration that he was unlikely to again seek public office. “It is exciting at the age of 54 to have the opportunity to consider a lot of new things in life,” he said.


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