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Gore's decision not to run in 2004 came as a surprise to many. After finally conceding the 2000 election, in which he actually won more votes than Bush, Gore dropped off the political radar.
But there were signs he was preparing the ground for a comeback with a high profile media tour spinning his new book coupled with a more aggressive stance attacking Bush on the issues. "Democrats should not mistake the magnitude of this loss, there has to be a major regrouping," Gore said in a post-election interview. "Democrats have to be the loyal opposition in fact and not just in name."
But there are mixed feelings towards Gore within the Democratic Party. While many still believe he was robbed in 2000, others blame him for throwing away an election he should have won in a walk.
There is a sense Gore might be rushing things by taking a second shot at Bush. Americans have little sympathy for beaten candidates who get right back on the campaign trail. William Jennings Bryan (1896, 1900), Thomas Dewey (1944, 1948) and Adlai Stevenson (1952, 1956), were all two-time losers.
Gore's decision may ultimately be revealed as a smart tactical move. The most obvious parallel is with Richard Nixon who, after losing in 1960, was smart enough to skip an unwinnable election in 1964 before making his comeback in 1968.
2004 is shaping up as unwinnable for the Democrats. After being written off as a dimwit preppy before the last presidential election and a usurper afterwards George W. Bush's decisive response to the tragedy of September 11 muzzled and marginalized his domestic political opponents.
The normal political pattern is for the president's party in mid-term elections to suffer some erosion in its support. This year, by clinging tight to Bush's coattails, the Republican Party defied a recession, a bear market, and a widening budget deficit to tighten its grip on the House of Congress and wrest back control of the Senate.
James Gimpel, professor of politics at the University of Maryland declares himself "mystified" at the wishful thinking of the Democrats on the salience of the national security issue during the campaign. "The Democrats apparently miscalculated the lasting impact of 911, thinking that people had gotten over it and were moving on when in fact this is not something you get over... Clearly, that was a fatal error."
At this point it's not easy to say which facet of the election was worse for the Democrats - that they were decimated across the South (practically ceasing to exist in the three largest states in the region, Texas, Florida and Georgia), or that Republicans were elected as governors in heavily Democratic states like Massachusetts, New York, Maryland and Hawaii.
The Southern debacle has deep roots and poses no easy answers. Highlighting the problem was the defeat of Senator Max Cleland of Georgia by Republican Sonny Purdue. Despite his military background (Cleland lost three limbs on active duty during the Vietnam War), 30 years experience in Georgia politics, and a moderate voting record, Cleland slumped to a 7-point loss in his first bid for reelection.
"Cleland's vulnerability was the vulnerability that so many Southern Democrats encounter now; that is, they run as a moderate, they get elected, but then their party leans on them," Charles Bullock, professor of politics at the University of Georgia says. "That then provided the fuel to put on the fire that Sonny Purdue lit which said that Max Cleland doesn't have Georgia values; Max Cleland opposes the president; Max Cleland, in essence, has become too liberal."
In the Senate race in North Carolina, Republican Elizabeth Dole blew out Democrat Erskine Bowles. Ted Arrington, professor of politics at the University of North Carolina, says "Candidates like Bowles simply didn't give the Democratic base, or the ticket splitters, any reason to vote for them."
"You don't need an extreme message, but you do need a message, and the Democrats haven't figured out quite how to do that," Arrington says.
This identity problem for the Democrats plays a large role in presidential elections - it explains why, for example, Gore was unable to carry a single Southern state in his 2000 presidential battle with Bush, not even his own.
"This transformation from a Democratic South to a Republican South has been a long time coming and it will take a while to undo it, if it's undoable at all," Constantine Spiliotes, professor of politics at Dartmouth University, says.
Many Democrats place their faith in the changing demographics of the South. Census figures reflect the slowly changing ethnic balance, but the raw statistics don't really reflect political reality. Turnout among minorities, the key voting blocs of the Democratic Party, is typically low. For example, Georgia's Hispanic population grew massively during the 1990s - the state has more than 500,000 Hispanic residents - yet fewer than 10,000 of them are registered to vote.
The South looks like a lock for Bush when he runs for reelection in 2004. That's bad news for Democrats. The eleven states of the old Confederacy are worth 153 votes in the Electoral College, more than half of the 270 needed for election.
"Despite Jeb Bush's big victory, I think Florida is a state the Democrats have a shot of taking in 2004," Bullock says. "That may be about it."
Is there any good news for the Democrats? They were able to hold on to their new bastions in the West and the Northeast, a reflection of what Gimpel calls the political "Balkanization" of the country. The challenge for 2004 will be nominating a candidate who can bring Democrats to the polls in those states while appealing to swing voters in the battleground Midwest.
Is there any Democrat who looks right now like he fits that bill? The answer, frankly, is no.
Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, and former Democratic leader in the House Richard Gephardt, have long been talked of as presidential candidates. But there is no question, as Spiliotes says, that "Coming off this election they are, in some sense, damaged goods."
Daschle has indicated he wants to stay on as minority leader in the Senate, for now, but is leaving his options open.
Gephardt made a clear signal of his ambitions when he stepped down last month. "I'm looking forward to the freedom to speak for myself and talk about my vision for America's future," Gephardt declared. "It's time for me personally to take a different direction, look at the country's challenge from a different perspective and take on this President and the Republican Party from a different vantage point."
Gephardt does have muscle. He has decades of political experience inside Washington and a network of contacts across the country. His home district is about as close to the geographic center of the nation as it's possible to be, and his political instincts are equally centrist. He is the favored candidate of the unions, an important Democratic constituency, but is not feared by business. He can raise money.
But, although Gephardt has held the Democratic caucus together with great patience and skill for the past eight years, "The kind of skills and qualities you need to be an effective leader in Congress are not necessarily the skills and qualities you need in order to command a mass base," Gimpel says. And he has led the Democratic Party to defeat in the past four elections.
He ran for the nomination once before, in 1988, and was blown out in the primaries. And history is against him: the only time a presidential candidate has gone directly from the House to the White House was in 1880.
Waiting in the wings are three Senators who have been sending clear signals of their presidential ambitions. Barely a day goes by without at least one of them appearing on the talking head shows. They have been speaking to, publishing for, and shaking hands with party activists across the country, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that will be first to pick delegates to the 2004 convention that will select the Democratic candidate.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts has already said it would take a "revolution" within his family to stop him running. Kerry has three big plusses. First, his background may deflect Republican charges Democrats cannot be trusted on the national security issue. As a gunboat captain in Vietnam, Kerry won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. Second, he is rich. In addition to his own money, he married the heiress to the Heinz ketchup empire. And thirdly, Kerry looks presidential - tall, with a well-groomed mane of hair.
Also to Kerry's advantage is the selection process for the nominee begins early in 2004 in the neighboring state of New Hampshire. "My guess is that the New Hampshire Democratic Party probably is Kerry's for the taking," J. Mark Wrighton, assistant professor of political science, University of New Hampshire, says.
"There is some truth to the fact that we did not speak to the average worker in America," Kerry said after his own reelection last month. In order to connect with "mainstream America," Kerry said, "We have to go out and organize in a way that we didn't. We have to speak to Americans with a clarity that we didn't. We have to show leadership and guts and determination within our own party."
Whether Kerry can effectively communicate that message is an open question. With his aristocratic lifestyle and consistently liberal political positions Kerry is vulnerable to Republican accusations he has no connection with "mainstream America." Kerry's biggest problem may be he lacks the common touch Americans look to in a president.
The electoral map is also against him. "I think he'd struggle in the south, among conservative Democrats anyway," William McLean, an instructor in political science at Arkansas State University says. "I think he'd pretty easily be portrayed as an extreme north-east liberal."
Kerry's leading rival to date, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, has the common touch in spades. Young, handsome, articulate, a self-made millionaire, he not only advocates a moderately conservative brand of politics, he does so with considerable Southern charm.
"Fiscal discipline is a prerequisite for robust economic growth," Edwards recently told business executives and government officials at the Fortune Global Forum in Washington. "You know why Americans think many Democrats want to spend too much money? They do."
In a bid to bolster his foreign-policy credentials and highlight differences with Bush, Edwards, who met with US troops in Afghanistan last year, plans to travel to Europe this month to meet with NATO officials and other allies about Iraq.
With these credentials, Edwards may offer the best chance the Democratic Party has to detach Southern states from the Bush column in 2004.
"The Clinton-New Democratic-DLC model is really the only thing that's going to work in the South," Spiliotes says. "There's been a lot of talk about moving to the left to get back to Democratic roots, but I just don't see that working in the South." Edwards, not Kerry, would be the logical person to think of in that context.
The main stigma attached to Edwards is the question of substance. He won his Senate seat in 1998 in his first foray into politics, and Republicans are certain to highlight his lack of experience. His regional appeal is also in doubt. "I think he would probably pick up his own state, but I'm not sure he would have any particular appeal in Georgia or even South Carolina," Bullock says.
The third possible contender, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Gore's running mate from 2000, who pledged not to run if Gore did, clearly gains the most from Gore's decision. Lieberman combines the qualities of both his rivals; from New England, like Kerry, he has the moderate political instincts of the Southerner Edwards. He is certainly the most conservative Democrat on offer - pro-business, strong on moral issues, a key supporter of the president's Middle East strategy.
However, while these positions would be powerful assets against Bush, they are unlikely to endear him to the activists in the Democratic primaries that select the candidate. And how the fact that Lieberman is an observant Jew would influence voters is very much an open question.
If the national security issue retains its salience leading into 2004 the Democrats may think outside the political square in looking for their candidate. Former supreme commander of NATO General Wesley Clark recently met with about 15 of the big money men the Park Avenue offices of venture capitalist Alan Patricof, a key financial backer for Gore in 2000, and told them he was seriously considering a run for the White House.
In Eisenhower-esque fashion, Clark is playing down his partisan ties at the moment, maintaining he is speaking to audiences across the country about developing an American "global vision for the 21st century."
If Clark does actively seek the nomination he is the one Democrat whose credentials may be solid enough to negate Bush's strength on the national security issue. Like fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton, Clark grew up without a father and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Unlike Clinton, after graduating first in the class of 1966 at West Point, Clark served in Vietnam, where he was wounded four times and highly decorated.
Clark rose steadily through the military hierarchy until his appointment as Supreme Allied Commander Europe on July 10, 1997, in which role he served until stepping down on May 3, 2000. During his term he commanded NATOs campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.
Clark, 57, has written a book on military strategy, Waging Modern War, and is most often in the public eye as a military analyst for CNN. In his day job, he is as a managing director of merchant banking at Stephens Group, a Little Rock-based investment firm that played a key financial role in Bill Clinton's political ascendancy.
The Democratic Party has been made well aware of the political appeal of a man in uniform, having lost to generals Zachary Taylor (1848), Ulysses Grant (1868 and 1872) and Dwight Eisenhower (1952 and 1956).
Nominating a general would be unusual for the Democratic Party, whose last military candidate was Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880 (and he lost). "It appears the deck may be stacked against the general," Wrighton says. Assuming Clark is able to neutralize Bush's advantage in terms of foreign policy and can shift the focus of the debate to domestic issues, "The question then becomes, what relevant experience does he bring to that?"
But with his glittering resume, and no political record to shoot holes in, Clark may be the answer to any Democratic candidate's prayers as a running mate.
Although the nominating system is front-loaded in favor of the established candidates, there is always the chance of a dark horse striking a chord with the electorate and riding that momentum to the convention. John McCain looked like he could do it in 2000. Is there anyone outside Washington circles who could emerge on the Democratic side?
Governors usually make strong candidates (think of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, just to name a recent few), but Democratic contenders are thin on the ground. Ironically, the party's brightest new star, Jennifer Granholm, the new governor of Michigan, is ineligible under the constitution to run for president because she was born in Canada.
The only potential wild card in the race to date is the only contender so far who has declared outright he is running: Howard Dean, the retiring Governor of Vermont.
Dean took office in 1991 and was the longest serving Democratic governor in the US before stepping down this year. During his term he turned a $700 million deficit into a budget surplus while cutting taxes, raising the minimum wage twice and introducing the closest thing to universal healthcare anywhere in the US.
Dean holds conservative positions on many issues - he has an "A" rating from America's powerful gun lobby, the NRA - but he is most renowned - or notorious - for his decision to sign into a law a bill allowing for same sex civil unions in Vermont, a position he would uphold in the White House: "As president, I would recognize civil unions federally, because equal rights under the law doesn't just mean equal rights under state law. It means equal rights under federal law."
Dean recently named Rick Ridder as his campaign manager, and signed up former Democratic National Committee chairman Steve Grossman to help him raise funds. He is employing the go anywhere, meet anyone grassroots strategy employed by Jimmy Carter, and while he is yet to feature in the polls, there are signs he may be making headway where it counts.
"Howard Dean has resonated quite nicely with Democratic activists," Spiliotes says. "The question is, is his message going to resonate with a broader audience?"
Bullock doesn't think so. "The problem with Howard Dean is that, certainly he looks attractive on the surface, and he's a well spoken fellow, and obviously very bright, but he's never really been tested. Dean's never really had a serious race: we don't really know what kind of record he has, and how it would stack up outside of Vermont."
The same could be said of any number of ultimately victorious candidates this early in the election cycle. Who had heard of Bill Clinton two years before he dethroned the first President Bush?