Democrats Debate Gore’s Role in Fall

Posted July 2, 2004 at 5:32pm

Following a $6 million donation to the three national Democratic Party committees, former Vice President Al Gore’s projected role in the fall campaign remains largely unformed as his ex-aides, party strategists and campaign officials wrestle with the question of whether voters are pining for his presence on the campaign trail.

Only Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.), who is challenging Sen. Arlen Specter (R), has requested a visit by Gore, according to officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Kiki McLean, a spokeswoman for Gore, said that “he has gotten a lot of invitations — more than he’ll be able to do — but he is going to do quite a few.” McLean said the discrepancy was due to the fact that not every invitation for Gore goes through the party committees.

Other allies of the former vice president contend that Gore’s emergence as the leading — and loudest — critic of the Bush administration fills a much-needed role in Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s presidential bid.

“The question isn’t whether there is a demand for Gore,” said one former aide to the vice president. “The question is whether there is a need for Gore. And the answer is yes.”

Gore’s outspokenness, they say, will allow Kerry to triangulate, tacking more to the ideological center in the remaining four months before the general election without worrying about alienating his liberal base.

“Every single time [Gore] goes off to the left it reminds people that John Kerry is not Al Gore,” said Jenny Backus, a former DCCC official. “He is an important comparative.”

“Gore is free to be harder-edged and can draw sharper contrasts than the nominee,” said a former Gore aide.

The Democratic Party base is made up of organized labor, trial attorneys, a majority of African-Americans and, increasingly, those who oppose the war in Iraq.

During the Democratic presidential primary process, Gore endorsed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who based his campaign on his anti-war position. Kerry supported a use-of-force resolution against Iraq.

The idea of triangulation between Gore and Kerry harkens back to the presidency of Bill Clinton when, following stunning ballot box defeats in both the Senate and the House in 1994, the former president used differences with Congressional Democrats to cast himself as a moderate problem solver to court independent and Republican voters.

Since his 2000 election loss to George W. Bush, Gore has cast his lot with the ideological left in a series of speeches, in the process becoming a hero to the Democratic base and a reviled figure to most Republicans.

In a June 24 address to the American Constitution Society, Gore accused Bush of “intentionally misleading” the American public about the alleged connections between al Qaeda and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D), one of the earliest supporters of Kerry’s presidential bid, said that in his recent series of speeches Gore is “framing these issues and giving John Kerry some ideas on how to address some of these big problems we face.”

“Al Gore has been helping to advance the debate and energize the party, particularly among constituencies that may have sat on the sidelines in the last election,” said Michael Feldman, a former senior aide to Gore. “The former VP is a constant reminder that every vote does count and that it makes a difference who we elect president.

“John Kerry has a different job. He is the nominee and the only person who will be on the ballot and taking his case to the voters this fall,” Feldman continued. “He has to reach out to liberal, conservative, Republican and independent voters.”

Most Democrats insist that there is no strategic effort by Gore to aid Kerry’s move to the political middle.

“I don’t think the campaign can control him,” said a Democratic consultant. “Al Gore does what he wants to do.”

That independence provides a potential trouble spot for Kerry since the campaign has no sure means of keeping Gore on message or regulating how high-profile a role he plays in the general election — a power they hold over most of their other Democratic surrogates.

However, one former Gore aide pointed out that because of his “unique” position in the party, the former vice president’s comments do not necessarily reflect back on Kerry.

“Unlike other Democratic surrogates, when it is inferred that they are speaking for John Kerry, people know that when Al Gore is speaking it’s for Al Gore,” said the source.

The two men do talk “frequently,” however, according to Peter Knight, a longtime Gore confidant and one of his chief fundraisers. “He wants to do everything he can to make sure Senator Kerry is elected.”

Knight noted that Gore has already made a significant contribution to his party’s prospect by donating $4 million to the Democratic National Committee and $1 million each to the DSCC and DCCC.

Those contributions came from leftover funds from a little-used committee that was formed to pay for the legal costs associated with the 2000 presidential election.

While the heads of both the DSCC and DCCC praised Gore for his generosity, it is his ideological positioning that complicates the vice president’s role in helping Democrats win back control of the Senate and the House.

In the Senate, Democrats must defend open seats in the South, an area which in the past decade has grown increasingly inhospitable to national Democratic leaders.

Due to the conservative lean of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, Gore is not likely to be a visible figure in any of the Democratic Senate campaigns in those states.

In Florida’s open seat, however, Gore may well be involved given the central role the state played in the 2000 presidential election.

“When Al Gore speaks about issues, Democrats have a lot of sympathy for what happened in 2000,” said a Democratic strategist.

Gore trailed in the Sunshine State by 537 votes when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the recounting be stopped, delivering the presidency to Bush.

The source added that “places that Al Gore wouldn’t be helpful to Senate candidates or John Kerry he’s not going to be invited to come.”

On the House side, the playing field for Democrats is less rooted in the South, but there appears to be little energy for Gore among the party’s most endangered incumbents or top-tier challengers.

No House candidate has inquired about a potential Gore visit, DCCC officials said.

But, acknowledged one House leadership aide, “he would be enormously helpful to some of our candidates in certain districts raising money and campaigning.”

Even so, while Gore’s rhetoric “fires up the base … a lot of the districts we are competing in we have to be more careful,” the aide added.