There is a collective sigh of relief among Democratic insiders today. Al Gore's decision to bypass the 2004 campaign has finally put an end to the 2000 campaign and signaled the dawn of a new Democratic Party free-for-all.
One Democrat, enthusiastic about Gore's decision, was tantalized by the prospect of an open race with no front-runner. "It's 1988 all over," he exclaimed. He then remembered that all the candidate activity, debates and new blood resulted in the nomination of Michael Dukakis and the election of a Republican, George H.W. Bush.
USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro, who is writing a book on this cycle's Invisible Primary, said that Democrats really have to go back to 1976 to find a field this wide open. At this point in the '88 race, Gary Hart was the clear "front-runner," although in May of '87 the Monkey Business/Donna Rice affair did him in.
An adviser to one of the prospective Democrats said that Gore's withdrawal leaves the field with a "number of boutiques but no department store."
Gore's decision frees up Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who gets brownie points for deferring to Gore before entering the race. Lieberman gained national name recognition in the 2000 race and tops some national polls with Gore out. He has put together a fund-raising PAC and will start the year with a million dollars in hard money in the bank. Over the last few weeks he's been hosting receptions for political operatives asking them not to commit to anyone else until Gore makes a decision. Today, Lieberman made it clear that he was a happy man with big plans.
The two announced candidates, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, also get a boost from Gore's withdrawal. Gore had started to move to the left on issues like health care and Iraq, stealing some thunder from the less well-known Dean. Dean is now clearly the most dovish candidate on Iraq and the most liberal on universal health care.
John Kerry, who was having a good December even before the Gore announcement, now dominates the polls in his neighboring state of New Hampshire. Kerry has stressed his service in Vietnam and his expertise in foreign policy in this early phase of the campaign, and in a Gore-less field his foreign policy credentials look particularly strong.
The two potential candidates from the Democratic leadership – Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle and former House Minority leader Dick Gephardt – are now in strong positions to claim establishment Democratic support.
Gephardt, who won the Iowa caucuses in 1988, now goes to the top of the pack in that state. In fact, even with Gore in the race, Gephardt was leading among Iowa Democrats over 65. Daschle dipped his toe into Iowa last weekend and has been talking seriously with financial backers and political operatives. There's some hope in both camps that one of the Midwestern leaders will pass up the race and they'll be eyeing each other carefully during the next few weeks. Daschle and Gephardt begin the process as friends, but friends who know a lot about each other's strengths and weaknesses and who are looking to many of the same people for financial and technical support.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who is contemplating a January announcement, can now fill the "Southern spot" left vacant by Gore. Many Democrats who are looking for a fresh face have been gravitating toward Edwards. A poll conducted last week for the political digest Hotline says Democrats really want a "winner," and since the only successful Democratic presidential nominees in the past 30 years have come from the South, Edwards' Carolina roots make him attractive. Although he's relatively new to the national scene, Edwards has been working to gain some foreign policy bona fides. He just returned from a trip to Europe where he met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and officials from NATO. This week he's giving a speech on homeland security.
Al Sharpton's fate could also be enhanced by the departure of Al Gore. In a field without a front-runner with a track record among African Americans, Sharpton may have a bit more leverage.
The biggest immediate impact of the Gore announcement may be on the Democratic money folks. They've been ducking calls from the former vice president and his emissaries for months, but in many ways Gore froze the process and let them off the hook. Many of these smart money types told the other candidates that they didn't want Gore to run but didn't feel they could make a commitment until he made a decision. Their excuse is now gone and the scramble is on to find a horse to ride.
Gore's departure has raised Democrats spirits. That is until they start remembering 1988 and that awful tank ride of Michael Dukakis.