Feisty and Furry, Gore Starts Race, Whacking Bush

It was after a light dinner course of fish and risotto that Al Gore finally came to life. Standing in front of some 40 guests at a private fund-raiser on the Upper East Side, wearing a beard, a blue suit and an air of supreme confidence, he tore into the Bush administration’s handling of the economy, the environment and the violence in the Middle East. “It’s like a bicycle,” he said, by way of explaining the peace process. “If it’s not moving forward, it doesn’t just stop–it falls down.” In contrast with the former Vice President’s public statements since Sept. 11, Mr. Gore raised strong questions about the direction of Mr. Bush’s war on terrorism and said that the President seemed to have adopted a philosophy of “speak loudly and carry a small stick.” And comparing his own achievements in office to those of the current President, he said that he was “damn proud” of the Clinton administration.

The guests–a virtual roll call of top Democratic fund-raisers from the 2000 Presidential election, including supermarket magnate John Catsimatides, Democratic National Committee finance chairwoman Maureen White, investment manager Orin Kramer, patron of the arts Barbaralee Diamonstein Spielvogel, public-relations man Robert Zimmerman and Loews Corp. chief executive Jonathan Tisch, who was hosting the event in his Fifth Avenue duplex apartment–were thrilled with Mr. Gore’s unexpected candor and feistiness. They quickly pledged $200,000 to Mr. Gore’s treasury. When it was all over, one donor leaned to another and asked what they were all wondering: “Why didn’t he talk like that during the last election?”

After more than a year in self-imposed exile from politics–a time of media ridicule, intra-party recriminations and public abandonment by major supporters because of his flawed, failed Presidential campaign in 2000–Candidate Gore is back from the dead. With his New York–centric fund-raising network springing into action, his well-placed political allies on notice and a newfound determination to insert himself back into the national political dialogue, Mr. Gore is acting like someone who wants another shot at the Presidency. For better or worse, he might just get it.

“If he runs, I think this will be his primary to lose,” said Simon Rosenberg, head of the influential New Democrat Network. “He starts out so far ahead, with a national fund-raising network and name identification, he’s going to be very hard to beat.”

Representative Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from Brooklyn who was a famously reluctant supporter of Mr. Gore in 2000, was even more matter-of-fact. “He’s going to be our nominee,” said Mr. Weiner.

Of course, Mr. Gore’s apparent resurrection is not being universally welcomed in the circles of elected officials and party loyalists who carried the banner for him in 2000. They’re not hoping that Mr. Gore will learn from his past mistakes. They’re hoping he’ll disappear entirely.

“Al who?” said Representative Charlie Rangel, the dean of New York’s Congressional Democrats. “Why don’t you give me time to spread the word–I’m going to Washington tomorrow, and I’ll tell the delegation that Gore’s back. I hadn’t noticed. Maybe he was already back and no one recognized him because of the beard.”

Mr. Rangel took particular issue with the notion that Mr. Gore’s organizational advantages would allow him to dominate his primary opponents. “You can raise $200,000 and be popular with one group of people, but that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the fact that we’re going to have a variety of nationally known candidates vying for the nomination,” he said. Mr. Rangel even suggested the name of one candidate who certainly is nationally known, for better or worse: “Maybe Bill Clinton could run. I don’t know if he’s really allowed, but the Supreme Court owes us one.”

It is one thing for Mr. Gore to be disliked among the Washington elite, although that must be a bitter enough pill for someone who spent so much of his life inside the Beltway. (Between Mr. Gore’s time in Congress and the White House and that of his Senator father, Albert Sr., a Gore has held office in Washington for all but six of the last 50 years.)

What’s more remarkable is the level of animosity among politicos in a place like New York, where Mr. Gore defeated Mr. Bush in 2000 by almost a 2-1 margin. “There are a lot of people who are active in Democratic politics at the local level who just don’t want to be put through it again with him,” said State Senator Eric Schneiderman of the West Side. “I think that most Democratic activists feel like he’s a tremendously smart guy who’d make a great President, but who has severe limitations as a candidate. Those Democrats in New York and around the country are gun-shy about going to war again with him at the head of our troops.”

That Darned Dowd!

Supporters say that much of the animosity toward Mr. Gore is stirred up by “elite opinion-makers” who perpetuate the idea that the former Vice President is as exciting as a late-night panel discussion on C-Span. These supporters almost unanimously cite a recent, unflattering column by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times entitled “The Dude and the Dud.” Mr. Gore, needless to say, was the dud. They also say that criticism of Mr. Gore’s mistakes during Campaign 2000 has been blown out of proportion. “The piling on here has been unbelievable,” said Mr. Zimmerman, who is a D.N.C. committeeman and a top Democratic fund-raiser. “It’s coming from political pundits and other people who sit on the sidelines and never really make a difference. It’s irrelevant, and if anything, it’s served to rally the Gore troops. These are many of the same people who said that [Bill] Bradley was going to beat Gore in 2000.”

Mr. Gore’s partisans also argue that the political environment in the Democratic Party is about to undergo a major change. As a Gore candidacy gets to be closer to a reality–the beginning of the front-loaded Democratic primary schedule is less than two years away–it will become increasingly difficult for fence-sitters and detractors alike to brush off the idea of Gore in ’04. Donors will write checks, just to be safe. Uncommitted elected officials will come back into the fold, betting on the best-funded and best-organized candidate. The media will try to decipher Mr. Gore’s detailed policy proposals, rather than talking about his beard, his weight or, most significantly, his performance in 2000.

“Lead opinion in the Democratic Party is starting to change,” said Mr. Kramer, a longtime Gore supporter. “People are just starting to realize that Gore is really serious about this thing, and that hasn’t adequately filtered through Democratic elite opinion yet.”

Mr. Kramer also suggested that the whole process would be accelerated in the coming weeks, as Mr. Gore and his allies continued to make their presence felt. “He’s got a distinctive understanding of public policy and an important voice, and he has close friends who intend to ensure that that voice is heard in 2002,” Mr. Kramer said.

To some observers, Mr. Gore’s re-emergence is already taking on the look of a cunningly orchestrated plan. “If you had to sit down in January of 2001 and you had to put together a plan for becoming President in four years after being where Gore was, you’d probably do it very similarly to the way he did it,” said Mr. Weiner. “Lay low for six or eight months, emerge gradually, do one or two speeches to mark that you’re back to the game of being a little bit critical, then gradually start doing fund-raising, then shave off the beard. I think he knows what he’s doing, and knew that a while after his campaign there would be people who were critical of his candidacy. And he’s basically done it right, and I think he’s going to be the guy.”

If he’s ever going to be “the guy,” it will be despite his political skills, not because of them. Mr. Gore will never be accused, as Mr. Clinton was, of charming his way into office. In the end, Mr. Gore’s supporters hope that none of that matters. “There are really serious issues the country is up against, and charm is not what we need right now,” said Laura Ross, a Manhattan-based fund-raiser who attended Mr. Gore’s event. “Gore offers intelligence, conviction, thoughtfulness and leadership. He probably doesn’t have as much charm as George Bush, but so what? He has the right answers.”