By RICHARD BERKE
The New York Times
The New York Times
WASHINGTON – Only days after they steadfastly defended Vice President Al Gore as the man who should be president, many prominent Democrats now say it would be difficult for him to stage a comeback in 2004. Instead, they are looking to someone who will never again run for president to serve as the driving force in opposition party: Bill Clinton.
As the party prepares for a spell out of power in both Congress and the White House, tensions are already flaring between loyalists of Gore and Clinton over who should have more say over the future of the Democrats.
For all their effusive praise for Gore’s concession speech last week, several leading Democrats say they still believe he was a flawed candidate who squandered a prime opportunity to capture the White House.
“Gee whiz, I wouldn’t begrudge the guy for wanting to try again,” said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who friends say has toyed with running himself in 2004. “Ironically, the closeness of the election has put a sheen back on him that I’m not sure can be sustained for four years. It will be an uphill battle for him to get the nomination again.”
Given that Clinton remains a more popular figure in the party than Gore, many Democrats said they would turn to him to help set the message for the party and raise money. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that nationally Clinton has an impressive 66 percent approval rating – higher than two other popular postwar presidents, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower, at the close of their terms.
Even Tony Coelho, Gore’s former campaign chairman, said Clinton was now the leader of the party, although the vice president was the standard bearer in 2000.
“Bill Clinton is the incumbent president and the so-called last winner, so he is the de facto leader,” said Coelho, a former congressman from California. “He will be the one that the party will depend on to raise money and to be a major voice in whatever they’re doing across the country.”
He added: “I submit to you, we’re going to have a governor’s race in New Jersey next year – and Mr. Clinton will draw the biggest crowd.”
Clinton, who apparently has not settled on what he intends to do when he leaves office aside from working on his presidential library, has encouraged the interest, telling influential Democrats that he intends to play an energetic role.
“He is serious,” said Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader. “He has indicated to me that he will be helpful to work with us in Congress to articulate our message and help with fund-raising. He will always be the one who energizes our base. He enjoys a depth of friendship and a network of relationships around the country that is pretty remarkable.”
A telling example of Clinton’s desire to stay influential is that he is moving behind the scenes to install his best friend and the party’s top fund-raiser, Terry McAuliffe, in the job of chairman of the party.
Though Gore belatedly signed on to the idea, Clinton’s move infuriated some Gore loyalists who complained that Clinton was trying to impose his own team without regard to the vice president’s wishes.
To be sure, in the minds of some people, Clinton’s presence was a liability to the ticket after the scandal that led to his impeachment but ended in acquittal.
But adding to the Clinton family’s expected political power, some Democrats also said that Hillary Clinton, the senator-elect from New York, will have a larger role in the party than Gore – and that Clinton’s stature will be enhanced by his wife.
“He’s not someone who’s going to be relegated to backstage,” said Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party. “He’ll continue to have a role, not only as the spouse of a senator, but his energy and commitment will always be there.”
One reason why many Democrats are turning to Clinton over Gore is that they contend that the vice president made a fundamental mistake during the campaign by not emphasizing the administration’s accomplishments.
“I’m very sorry that he lost the presidency by such a close margin,” said Tom Giblin, chairman of the New Jersey Democratic Party. “But politics is not like horseshoes: you don’t get a prize for second place. It’s going to be very difficult for Al Gore to come back.”
Expressing concern that Gore neglected the president during the campaign, Giblin added, “My attitude was that Bill Clinton brought Al Gore to the dance. He should have gone home with him from the dance.”
Torricelli said “there will be a sense of entitlement” on Gore’s part because of the close outcome. But he said that while there was “sympathy” for Gore’s loss, “there is a deep disappointment that his campaign was unsuccessful in nearly ideal circumstances following a successful Clinton presidency, an expanding economy and Democratic dominance of most national issues.”
In a statement e-mailed to The New York Times, Gore said he had made no decisions about his next career move, let alone whether he will run for president in 2004.
“I’m not going to make any decisions about what I do next in life until I take some time off,” Gore said.
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