WASHINGTON -- A senior, politically savvy Democratic House member is in a quandary. He is expecting a telephone call from Al Gore to feel him out for 2004 presidential support. How can he stave off the former vice president without really saying no? This congressman feels the party's strongest candidate may be Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a newcomer who has just shown himself unready for prime time.
The lawmaker's frustration is widely shared in his party. It is hard to find prominent Democrats who welcome Gore's apparent inclination to try again in 2004. "Oh, no, not Gore!" they say. But there is also consensual Democratic dismay over the stumbling performance Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" by Edwards.
Voicing such concerns does not unduly rush the party's presidential selection. Thanks to National Chairman Terry McAuliffe's compacting the primary election process, the Democratic nominee likely will be picked by February 2004 -- little more than a year and a half from now. Democratic politicians consider George W. Bush eminently beatable for re-election. Their dilemma is the lack of an obvious candidate.
Gore is surely not obvious, even after besting Bush in the 2000 popular vote. After a 16-month sabbatical, he returned to active politics with a stemwinder at last month's Democratic cattle call in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., attacking "special interests . . . calling the shots" in the Bush administration. While he roused the party's faithful, Gore did not convince the party's leaders.
To well-connected Democrats, the sweating, shouting orator in Florida looked like the old Al Gore. He still violates the late Lee Atwater's axiom (broken only by Richard M. Nixon) that a successful presidential candidate must be likable. The probability that Gore will run profoundly depresses the party establishment, particularly since the 2000 team of Gore and Sen. Joseph Lieberman may run as an entry in 2004.
Nobody can predict how McAuliffe's foreshortened primary schedule will play out, but Gore has the high cards. Lesser-known candidates will not have the time to establish themselves. Conceivably, Gore could recover from defeat in either or even both of the early tests in Iowa and New Hampshire. That prospect builds a palpable longing in party ranks for Gore not to run.
So what will the worried Democratic congressman do when he receives the call from Gore he has been alerted to expect? He told me that a Gore adviser in the 2000 campaign informed him that he has urged Gore not to run again and recommended that the congressman give him the same advice. He will not, but plans to be evasive about his intentions rather than burn bridges with the party's potential nominee.
This House member is eyeing an alternative. In the Democratic cloakroom, the talk has been of John Edwards. He fits the profile of a Bush-beater: a Southerner who votes liberal and talks moderate, handsome, youthful, articulate and a fresh voice without political baggage. Edwards has ridden a wave of favorable publicity, becoming the flavor of the week for several weeks -- until Sunday on "Meet the Press."
Edwards's performance did not fall to the level of Edward M. Kennedy's disastrous 1979 interview with Roger Mudd, but he withered under Tim Russert's grilling. Accustomed to tepid questioning on the campaign circuit, Edwards showed himself unprepared for the big time.
Edwards suggested Afghanistan was returning to Taliban control, but opposed a U.S. troop buildup there. He would not criticize Israeli settlements or military incursions in the Palestinian territories, and could not explain how the U.S. as an uncritical supporter of Israel could help achieve Middle East peace. He assailed President Bush for dipping into the Social Security trust fund but would not specify spending cuts or tax increases to avert it. He opposed the Bush tax cuts but would not embrace Sen. Kennedy's rollback.
The same Democrats who had been enchanted by Edwards were appalled. But even with a firmer grip on issues, the first-term senator faces an uphill climb. John Zogby's poll of Democratic voters shows Edwards eighth out of eight hopefuls with 1 percent, well behind Gore in first place with 46 percent. Whether they like it or not, the Democrats may be stuck with Al Gore.