The Washington Times

Will Al Gore be the Democratic nominee for president in 2004? Or has the party passed him by, eager now for a new face and chock-full of ambitious aspirants?

The answer to this question may hinge on the always-interesting relationship between the establishment elite of a party and its rank-and-file voters. It is quite clear that, as of now, the establishment is dubious about a second Gore bid. The regular guy is another story.

Let’s review. Mr. Gore did a pretty effective job in 2000 in keeping Democrats united and enthusiastic about him, though not a perfect job. Mr. Gore, after eight years as vice president, was every bit the party establishment candidate. His bid for the nomination did not quite go unchallenged, but he made short work of Bill Bradley. The bigger problem for Mr. Gore was the third-party candidacy of Ralph Nader. There are those Democrats who hold Mr. Nader personally responsible for the fact the George W. Bush (also the establishment candidate) is in the White House today, since if you add the votes Mr. Nader won in Florida to Mr. Gore’s total, the outcome is a decisive Gore victory.

I think that amounts to diagnosing the symptom, not the disease. The fact is that Mr. Gore had a problem with the left wing of his party, thanks largely to Bill Clinton’s efforts to recast the party in a centrist mold. Mr. Nader was a manifestation of this problem, not the cause of it. If the problem did not exist, Mr. Gore would be president. But the problem exists with or without Mr. Nader. So there was, indeed, a small but significant part of the Democratic Party elite that Mr. Gore never had.

What about his support from the rest of the establishment? Mr. Gore has a core of loyalists, of course, people who will always put him first, provided only that he asks them || in practical terms, by indicating his intention to run early enough so that they can commit to him before other candidates ask for their help. But in general, I would say that the party establishments of both the Democrats and the GOP have one overriding concern these days, and that’s selecting the candidate they think has the best chance of winning. (This is not always what party establishments favor: Witness the GOP establishment support for the unelectable Bob Dole in 1996.)

Mr. Gore’s problem is that, in the view of many establishment Democrats, he should have won in 2000 in a walk. In this view, Mr. Gore was heir to the successes of the Clinton years, and the negatives Mr. Clinton also bequeathed him were a perfectly solvable political problem that Mr. Gore couldn’t crack. In this view, it is not enough to say that Mr. Gore really won, both based on the intent of Florida voters and the outcome of the popular vote. The fact that he didn’t win with 52 percent of the vote or more, given the hand he had to play, is the problem. As they search for a winner for next time, Mr. Gore has already presented himself as a loser.

But here is where things get interesting. Because so far as I can tell, this elite view is far distant from the view of rank-and-file Democratic voters, especially the ones who are hard-core enough to turn out and vote in primaries.

For most of these voters, Mr. Gore did win. And that’s that. The Republican justices on the Supreme Court installed George W. Bush in a judicial coup. Al Gore fought the good fight. But he got, in a word, screwed. (Interestingly, this conviction is strongest on the party’s left wing. In other words, it’s quite possible that Mr. Gore has found a back-door solution to his problem from 2000.)

This sense of partisan outrage, I think, accounts for how well Mr. Gore is currently polling among Democrats when they are asked about 2004. He is not just the front-runner. He is far and away the front runner, with no one else on the screen except Hillary Rodham Clinton. And in any circumstances except the climate of elite opinion described above, anyone with numbers like his would be a figure of adulation. Think Mario Cuomo, 1987. And once he made it clear he was in the race, he would be raising all the money, and the party bigs would be flocking to him en masse.

But doesn’t that make Mr. Gore, well, electable? Or at least the most electable Democrat currently on the scene? I think so. And if party elites are truly as interested in winning as I think they are, then it’s quite possible the frustration and hard feelings current among elite Democrats will soon give way to a more realistic assessment of Mr. Gore’s potential.