WASHINGTON -- Democratic politicians are standing by Al Gore's dogged efforts to still win the presidency in 2000. But 2004 is another matter. If he can't make it this time, the party faithful want no part of Gore four years from now.
The dead heat between Vice President Gore and George W. Bush led to a quick consensus that the 2004 nomination was Gore's for the asking. In the days immediately after the Nov. 7 election, influential Democrats assumed Gore would be given a second chance if he lost the recount. But theirs was a joyless resignation to the inevitable, not a vigorous affirmation of a fallen warrior.
After one month, Democratic loyalists are no longer resigned. Rather, they have adopted in spirit the Republican motto: No More Gore! So long as Gore has the slightest chance to prevail in Florida, these Democrats will not speak on the record. But many activists I have talked to confidentially ask this question: If Al Gore could not do it in 2000 when all the stars were aligned in his favor, how could he be expected to do any better in 2004 in challenging an incumbent Republican president?
From the start, Democrats muttered that the vice president was the wrong candidate to oppose Gov. Bush but could not be stopped for the nomination. The candidate of the Democratic National Committee, the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association, the National Abortion Rights Action League, the Sierra Club, African-Americans and, most important, of Bill Clinton, scared away all opposition except Bill Bradley.
That these interest groups performed so heroically in getting out the vote for the general election generates more internal dissatisfaction with the candidate. One nationally known Democratic operative, who never has uttered one critical word about Gore, delivered this impassioned critique to me on condition that he not be named:
"Everything was going for Gore -- a great economy with no desire for change, a weak Republican opponent. This is the worst presidential campaign that I have seen in my lifetime -- yes, even worse than (Michael) Dukakis (in 1988). It's the candidate. He's horrible. How could he lose Tennessee? How could he lose West Virginia? I will not go through this again in four years."
To such critics, Gore's post-election performance was merely a reprise of his campaign. Hardly any Democrat complains about Gore refusing to surrender. What bothers them is his ineffectiveness in presenting his case to the country.
Contrary to the Gore campaign's professed lack of interest in polls, one senior aide told me two weeks ago he kept a watchful eye on how many Americans wanted the vice president to concede. If their number approached 60 percent, he said, Gore's voter base would have seriously eroded.
Preference for a Gore concession did climb toward 60 percent after Secretary of State Katherine Harris on Nov. 26 certified Bush as the Florida winner. That's why Gore went on a media blitz, with statements and interviews.
It did no good. Independent pollster John Zogby showed 57 percent national support for a concession after Gore's Nov. 27 statement to the country. Alone among poll takers, Zogby correctly forecast the 49 percent to 48 percent Gore edge over Bush in the national popular vote. Now, he sees 9 additional percentage points added to Bush's total.
In his post-election statement, Gore exhibited the failings that marred his presidential campaign. Over and over, he chanted for "a single, full and accurate vote." In each of his Nov. 28 interviews, he repeated a false analogy between a defective supermarket scanner and a defective voting machine. His smile and giggle, unrelated to what was being said, recalled his campaign style.
In a hurriedly arranged appearance on CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday, he associated himself with lawsuits (that "I decided not to join") to void absentee votes in Seminole and Martin Counties. In a Tuesday press conference, he relied heavily on these two dubious contests while twice insisting "I'm not a party to it." That's the style that dissipated his assets in 2000, and Democratic loyalists do not want to see a rerun in 2004.