Pundits, others gaze at 2004

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 12/14/2000

ASHINGTON - Democrats across the nation's capital voiced outrage yesterday at the Supreme Court, and sympathy for Al Gore. But while the election drama has united the Democrats, it has already begun to divide them about who might best serve the party in 2004.

In the hours before Gore's address yesterday, few Democrats wanted to question the vice president publicly. Privately, some party members and officials have expressed their sorrow or frustration that the contest was so close, and some said that a stronger campaign or candidate would easily have vanquished George W. Bush.

''The one line I hear so often is, `He should have been able to carry his home state,''' said the former White House chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta, a Gore associate. Panetta said that frustration over the close margin, while perhaps unfair, ''has been cooking out there for a number of weeks.''

Now that the race is over, Panetta said, ''There are going to be a lot of names mentioned in the next few weeks.

In the short term, Democrats said, the party could benefit in the 2002 midterm elections, perhaps gaining control of the House, where the Republicans have a five-seat edge, and the Senate, which is split 50-50.

''Given what happened in the presidential race, the odds on our winning the Senate in 2002 are much greater than they would have been,'' said Senator John F. Kerry, who is up for reelection in two years.

Asked whether the Gore loss had prompted him to think about running for president in 2004, as he thought seriously about doing this year, Kerry said he is ''focused on 2002,'' but signaled some interest by saying he is ''not taking anything off the table.''

Even as Democratic officials decried what they called the unfairness of the Supreme Court's decision, they acknowledged that the outcome of the 2000 election could provide one of the biggest boosts in contributions and activism in recent party history. Some officials said they expect more energy within the party than occurred during the campaign.

''The stakes will be higher, the Democratic Party will be more energized than ever before,'' said a House Democratic official who suggested that black voters and unions would be especially active.

No topic within the party is more sensitive than the question of who might become the front-runner for 2004. While the question may seen premature, it has been percolating since Election Day. The five-week interim of indecisiveness since Election Day has kept recriminations against Gore to a minimum until now. That is likely to change.

Some party officials, speaking privately, wonder how Gore could have lost when running on a vibrant economy against a candidate many in the party perceived as weak. To be sure, Democrats note that Gore's race was made more difficult by the presence of the Green Party nominee, Ralph Nader. But if Gore had won his home state of Tennessee, or New Hampshire, or even the normally Democratic bastion of West Virginia, he would be president today. The Florida outcome could have been moot.

''The problem for Gore running again is that while he can make the case that he came awfully close to winning, other people can say the problem with the Gore campaign is Gore,'' said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, which has tracked public views about the election. ''He won the popular vote, he may have won Florida, but he may never get there'' to the White House.

Another political analyst, Stuart Rothenberg, said Gore is likely to start out with an advantage as a front-runner, but said he could fade in a couple of years.

''His fundamental argument is that `I did win, I won in Florida,''' Rothenberg said. ''If he plays his cards right, goes from state to state, raising money, speaking on issues, he can entrench himself as Democratic shadow government, government in waiting. ''

But, Rothenberg said, that may not be enough. ''The question is whether, two years from now, are people just bored with the idea of Al Gore? Does he seem like ancient history? Is he a loser?''

Even while Gore was writing his speech yesterday, the signs of maneuvering for 2004 could be seen. Some backers of the House minority leader, Richard A. Gephardt, criticized Gore's campaign, and spread word that the Missourian would be in an ideal position to run, especially if the House has a majority in 2002 and he becomes speaker.

The California governor, Gray Davis, another prospect, was highlighted yesterday in the political newsletter called The Hotline, which noted his assumption of the chairmanship of the Democratic Governors Association.

Other potential 2004 prospects include several who became more prominent this year due to their ties to Gore. Kerry, for example, was widely viewed as a possible running mate, as were the previously little-known Senators John Edwards of North Carolina and Evan Bayh of Indiana.

Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who did become Gore's running mate, is also in a better position to run, although he probably would not challenge Gore.

''An awful lot of people across the country are going to feel that Al won the national popular vote, and if he decides he wants to run again obviously they would take that very seriously,'' said Edwards, who also said he has not thought about running in 2004, when he is up for reelection to the Senate.

Gore's address last night will be described as the first campaign speech of the next presidential election, setting the tone for how Gore is perceived for years to come. And, inevitably, Gore will be asked at every appearance if he will again run for president.

But it is not certain that Gore would want to run again.

Some Democrats said privately that Gore's wife, Tipper, and at least some of his children are reluctant for Gore to run again. That is not surprising, considering the grueling campaign and its frustrating conclusion. Mrs. Gore's role in a candidacy would be crucial, friends said.

''It is a brutal process,'' Panetta said. ''I know that probably the best advice anybody could give him is: `Take time off, be together, take comfort with each other.' The wounds from this race not only affect the country, but the family.''

In time, the frustration of 2000 may fuel a desire for another campaign. If media organizations or other groups use Florida's lenient Freedom of Information laws to examine the ballots and conclude that Gore did win, his case for running again could be bolstered.

Indeed, as Rothenberg put it, Gore is a man practically raised from birth with the notion that he would run for president. ''What else would he do?'' Rothenberg said. ''Write a book on the melting ice caps?''