WHILE FEW have officially distanced themselves from Gore, even fewer are driving around the state with gore 2004! signs. You don’t see 2004 signs for the others either, although johnkerry.com bumper stickers do appear, because of New Hampshire’s proximity to Massachusetts. Typical is State Senator Caroline McCarley, who helped organize Edwards’s February visit. McCarley, who also helped Gore during his October jaunt to the state, is officially uncommitted. "If Senator Kerry called and said, ‘Would you host something?’, I’d certainly say yes to that," she says. Still, she has nice things to say about Gore. "I really and truly think there are a lot of people across the state of New Hampshire eagerly awaiting Vice-President Gore’s decision," she notes.
Gore loyalists take solace in the fact that many Democratic activists have not yet officially signed on to opposing campaigns — even though these activists are unofficially helping other candidates around the state. Among the faithful, there is the presumption that in 2004, Gore can break the traditional rules for a political candidate. They argue that their man is different because he won the popular vote in 2000 and has the status of a former vice-president and US senator. That, they say, means that he can hang back as long as possible without making his intentions known. He can raise money in a relatively short, intense period after the 2002 midterm election. His biography ensures that a swarm of New Hampshire activists will rally to his cause.
As an example of the kind of positive spin you hear from Gore die-hards, consider this. "Does it [his current lack of activity] mean he won’t be able to run in an extravagant way like he’s used to?" asks a Gore admirer. "Yeah. But he probably needs to run a tougher campaign." This comment reflects one strand of the deconstruction of Gore’s 2000 campaign: that it was overrun with high-priced consultants. What had been trumpeted as one of his advantages back then — the fact that he could run as an incumbent with almost the same political organization as a sitting president — is now presented, even by Gore himself, as having been a weakness. Remember how, a couple of months ago, Gore blamed his loss on consultants and vowed to run as his own man this time? In essence, that’s just more spin to paper over the fact that he isn’t doing any better — in fact, he’s doing worse — with consultants than he is with party activists in New Hampshire. His chief 2000 strategist, Bob Shrum, is leaning toward Edwards. His other political mastermind — the guy who shrewdly told him not to concede on election night — was Michael Whouley, who has a two-decade relationship with Kerry and is expected to end up working with Massachusetts’s junior senator.
But the bottom line is that nobody in the Gore camp wants to consider one possible reason why a financially stacked candidate with an enormous organization — and a thriving economy! — could not win a resounding victory in 2000: Gore himself. And many in New Hampshire are well aware of that explanation.
Another spin line coming from the Gore camp is that the candidate is taking care of business. While not officially raising funds, he is "keeping his relationships" alive, according to one Gore operative. Indeed, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak reported July 21 that many donors are staying on the sidelines, waiting for Gore to make up his mind. Still, the fact that many of the BMGs (big-money guys) are out of the game works to the advantage of those who are successfully raising money now — especially Edwards and Kerry, who are banking cash through their own networks (Edwards has ties to the trial-lawyer community, while Kerry has alternate networks among Massachusetts voters and environmentalists, and a nationwide direct-mail list). "In 1988 and 1992 [and even 2000], the nomination was won by the person who won the money primaries," says a Democratic activist.
ALTHOUGH GORE avoided the Democratic Leadership Council event this past Monday, he did manage to lift his head out of the sand last Thursday, July 25, when he criticized Bush’s handling of corporate misdealings (a smart move) and preparations for war with Iraq (a mistake if Saddam Hussein falls with ease). More important, this week Gore is convening his summer-training program for young political activists in Tennessee. His fans like to boast that the camp will serve as the training ground for his 2004 field staff. What this spin misses, however, is that Gore needs to generate his own organization anew because so many in his old one have given up on the twice-failed presidential candidate.
Ultimately, Gore’s bunker brigade takes great solace in the recent Washington Post poll showing that 50 percent of Democrats still favor Gore over his rivals for the Democratic nomination by a ratio of more than five to one. For instance, the poll puts Senate majority leader Tom Daschle’s support at nine percent (making him an unlikely candidate), with Gephardt’s and Kerry’s support tied at seven percent. But, rather than rejoicing, Gore’s supporters ought to be crying in their beer. Here is a former Democratic Party nominee who actually won the popular vote, and the best he can do is 50 percent. This means that the other 50 percent of Democratic voters want anybody but Gore. Obviously, then, the former vice-president starts the 2004 election with less popular support, less money, less organizational support, and less help in New Hampshire than he had in 2000. If he had any sense, he’d stay home. Since he’s Al Gore, you can expect him to get in when it’s already too late and, if he snags the nomination, muff the general election again — unless one of the would-be non-Gores, such as Kerry, Gephardt, or Edwards, can stop him in New Hampshire and one or two other states in the highly concentrated early primary season of 2004.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com