MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE — Senator John Edwards of North Carolina has already wooed Democratic activists at a pig roast in Bow. Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut has glad-handed the firefighters in Nashua. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts has gone to the Nashua Senior Center to hammer the Republicans for playing "bingo" with prescription-drug benefits. House minority leader Richard Gephardt has pounded the pavement for congressional hopefuls Katrina Swett and Martha Fuller Clark. Vermont governor Howard Dean is in New Hampshire so much he’s drawing fire from his hometown press. Even the Reverend Al Sharpton has stopped by the Granite State — just before, it should be noted, HBO’s broadcast of a 1983 FBI surveillance video of a cowboy-hat-wearing Sharpton discussing a purported drug deal.
All the potential 2004 presidential aspirants have been devoting considerable energy to New Hampshire, except for one — former vice-president Al Gore. With the exception of a hastily organized two-day visit last October, which some Democrats privately describe as "bizarre," Gore’s presence is more or less negligible in New Hampshire some 19 months before the state’s next presidential primary. To the uninitiated, it may seem too early to be campaigning for the presidency. After all, Gore’s vanishing act pales in comparison with the array of important state and congressional races currently riveting the nation’s political attention, such as the critical governors’ battles in Massachusetts, New York, California, and Florida. Besides, isn’t it too early to be worrying about the presidential race?
Well, no. On Monday and Tuesday, Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, and Gephardt all addressed the influential, centrist-leaning Democratic Leadership Council’s "National Conversation" conference, and even Lieberman is now publicly re-examining his promise to refrain from running if Gore runs. The New York event drew the undivided attention of political junkies, who are currently in the process of deciding which 2004 candidates to support. Right now, potential presidential candidates should be doing three things: 1) letting the world know they’re running by appearing on news programs, such as NBC’s Meet the Press with Tim Russert; 2) competing in the fundraising "money primary"; and 3) building the foundations of a nationwide political organization. So far, Gore is pursuing none of these objectives. He’s not even making himself accessible to Washington’s bigfoot journalists; Washington Post columnist David Broder hasn’t seen the former vice-president in at least a year. As for fundraising, between April and June Gore raised a piddling $296,457 for his political-action committee; he currently has only $181,362 in cash on hand, having reportedly spent the balance. Kerry, by contrast, raised $500,000 for his political-action committee (PAC) in the same period and has an additional $3.4 million in his campaign account. In the same period, Edwards took in more than $2 million for his PAC, the bulk of it soft money that will become illegal after January 1, 2003. As for building a nationwide network, again, Gore’s been absent. And all this is magnified in New Hampshire, where, two years before a presidential primary, presumptive candidates prepare to run by signing up political activists and cultivating local media.
But New Hampshire’s political territory may not prove all that welcoming for Gore. WNTK talk-show host Arnie Arneson, whose broadcast is a must-do for would-be presidential candidates (Kerry put in a call to her show while he was canvassing the state last week), says New Hampshire voters are still frustrated by Gore and the exhausting demise of his 2000 campaign. "We were around him forever," she says. "It’s not like he didn’t answer every question at Dartmouth College, for forever, including [one] from the guy sweeping the floor with a broom." His Granite State supporters remain disheartened that the candidate with whom they spent so much time couldn’t seal the deal.
To make matters worse, Gore’s absence is costing him dearly in the "pre-primary" to attract support from New Hampshire’s network of some 500 to 1000 political activists. These are the people who help set up all those quaint coffee klatches between candidates and voters, and who can make the difference that puts a candidate over the top. "New Hampshire activists are 24/7 activists," says Ray Buckley, the vice-chair of the state Democratic Party and the minority whip in New Hampshire’s House of Representatives. "They can schedule events. They can attract people to come to events. Anybody worth a dime in this state has lists of people who supported a candidate in the past and schedules of where candidates have gone before."
In the 2000 primary, support from these activists — who favored him by 60 percent to 80 percent — gave Gore a great advantage over former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, his most serious rival for the nomination. These are the activists who stuck with Gore when he began to slide in New Hampshire in December 2000, before Bradley tanked and Arizona senator John McCain caught fire on the Republican side. Now, according to state Democratic sources, not only does Gore need to win over the activists who supported Bradley in 2000, but he must also get back many of those who supported him two years ago. Furthermore, the former vice-president would have to begin his efforts in New Hampshire without Nick Baldick — who coordinated his campaign there in 2000, but who is now helping Edwards — and possibly without many other activists, who are already working for Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, et al. For example, Concord-based lobbyist Jim Demers, who assisted Gore in 2000, is now with long-time friend Gephardt. And when Kerry visited last week, he buttonholed several activists, including Buckley, for brief private chats. Nobody knows what they discussed, but it probably wasn’t the Red Sox. Says one big-time Democratic operative who asked not to be named: "It’s tough after people ask you, ‘Can you be with me?’ four or five times to say no. People like to get in on the ground floor early. I think people believe Gore may run again, but he hasn’t said it. That puts Gore at a disadvantage in the pre-primary season."