Gore Can Only Watch As Edwards Stakes '08 Claim

If you accept that Al Gore is itching for an excuse to run for President again—a proposition no more bold than declaring that two and two make four—then you’ve got to believe he’s secretly hoping that John Edwards stumbles, and soon.

The most plausible Gore ’08 scenario right now calls for the former Vice President—a little grayer, a lot pudgier and, thanks to the evangelism of global warming, at last comfortable in his own skin—to be reluctantly drafted back into the political game sometime in the middle of 2007, when the party’s rank-and-file faithful size up their field, as they do every four years, and wish there was another choice.

Mr. Gore’s reluctance, of course, would be strictly for show—and absolutely necessary, an assurance to Americans that the New Gore no longer seems like someone who was honing his State of the Union speech in the bathroom mirror at age 9. Mr. Gore himself offers a winking acknowledgement of this white-knight strategy when he says that he has “no plans to run” again, instead of offering a flat “hell no.”

Which is why Mr. Edwards must be giving Mr. Gore fits these days. There are unmistakable signs that the one-term Senator from the Tar Heel State, whose hunger for the Presidency certainly matches Mr. Gore’s, is energizing the very Democrats on whose apathy Mr. Gore’s ’08 roadmap depends. If he keeps it up, there simply won’t be any room for Al Gore’s dramatic midsummer re-emergence.

Both men’s prospective bids depend on galvanizing their party’s left-of-center grassroots—fertile ground, with Hillary Clinton determined to say nothing that might jeopardize her chances of flipping a red state in the fall. And wisely, they are both counting on Big Ideas to do the trick: Mr. Gore offers a crusade against global warming, and Mr. Edwards wants to renew the war on poverty. Neither issue would rate well in a focus group, but as John McCain proved with campaign-finance reform in 2000, authenticity and conviction matter more than position papers.

But there’s only space for one to Hillary’s left, and Mr. Edwards—for now, anyway—holds two advantages over Mr. Gore. The first is his reputation as a candidate. There are Democrats who believe that President Bush would’ve been unseated if Mr. Edwards, and not John Kerry, had been the party’s nominee in 2004, while Mr. Gore’s 2000 effort is mostly recalled as the political equivalent of a blown save. (The counter-argument to this is that Mr. Edwards only managed to debate Dick Cheney to a draw—at best.) But more importantly, Mr. Edwards is free now to do what Mr. Gore can’t: act like a candidate. Every state legislator he corrals while traversing Iowa represents a small but significant blow to Mr. Gore’s comeback dream.

It’s tempting to feel for Al Gore, who began making all the right political moves from the moment he called off his recount-seeking legal hounds and bowed to the Rehnquist court six Decembers ago. That nationally televised concession alone did much to erase the “sore loser” tag that the Republicans unfairly—but quite effectively—stuck on Mr. Gore during the Florida ordeal, and since then he’s moved determinedly to shed his image as a rudderless promotion-seeker. Mr. Edwards professes regret over his vote to invade Iraq, but Mr. Gore can say he stood against the war from the very beginning. And even though it called his sense of loyalty into question, Mr. Gore’s ’04 snub of his ’00 running mate, Joe Lieberman, now has more than a whiff of prescience.

Indeed, his story of ideological redemption would probably play well in the cornfields of Iowa. But that’s just the problem: If Mr. Gore actively seeks to head off Mr. Edwards now, he will be admitting that, just as before, he is driven first and foremost by Presidential ambition. And so he must wait on the sidelines, feigning a spectator’s interest in the scrum while waiting for someone—anyone—to hand him a jersey and push him onto the field.

His plight isn’t entirely without precedent. Since his ’00 loss, Mr. Gore has frequently been compared to Richard Nixon, the last vanquished major-party nominee to enjoy a second bite at the apple. And actually, Nixon faced more skepticism in his 1968 encore, having embarrassed himself by following up his narrow 1960 defeat with an ill-considered run for Governor of California.

There was no Hillary equivalent in the ’68 Republican mix, but as he eyed the race, Nixon recognized that his main competitor would be George Romney, the Michigan governor championed by the party’s Rockefeller wing and deemed more electable in the fall. Romney, though, proved thoroughly unprepared for the limelight, and when his infamous “brainwashing” comment about the Vietnam War hastened the end of his dismal campaign, the nomination practically defaulted into Nixon’s hands.

There is one other Gore ’08 scenario, of course. But the alternative one, in which Hillary Clinton inexplicably opts not to pursue what may be her last best shot at the Presidency—leaving a John Madden–sized void on the Democratic side—still seems remote.

For now, Mr. Gore must place his hope in the truism that in politics, funny things happen. So he’ll continue to lie in wait, positioned to pounce just in case something funny should happen to Mr. Edwards’ campaign.