Commentary: The Search Begins for a Democratic Savior

If Al Gore is a goner, will he be a goner for good? While the Veep's popular-vote victory makes him hard to dismiss as a future contender, the impression that George W. Bush is destined to be a one-termer already has plenty of other Dems jostling to get in line for 2004. At the same time, the party faces some serious soul-searching.

As Democrats enter the post-Clinton era, they are looking for a leader who can quell the infighting between centrist New Democrats and the much larger coalition of liberals, union members, and minorities. More important, they must find a way to reach out to the independents, suburbanites, and New Economy swing voters who switched from Clinton in '96 to Bush in 2000. And as the candidacy of Ralph Nader taught Dems, they ignore disgruntled Greens, anti-globalists, and other lefties at their peril.

''THIS IS IT.'' Without another Clinton, uniting a party going in so many directions would seem to be a mission impossible. But for a brief moment after the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, Gore seemed to have the right stuff. Now a Gore loss would leave him without elective office, rejected in his home state, and defeated in a campaign many Democrats considered easily winnable. All that adds up to a daunting comeback. ''Most likely, this is it for Gore,'' says one top Democrat. ''It's hard to imagine having better wind at your back--and he still managed to blow it.''

Still, Gore's late campaign surge leading to his popular-vote win ''totally changes the calculation that was widely circulated that if Gore lost, he's finished,'' says Representative David Price (D-N.C.), a prominent moderate. But a Gore-free contest would draw out some Democratic heavyweights. Among the most prominent: Gore running mate Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, California Governor Gray Davis, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, retiring Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, and possibly House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Lieberman got the biggest push out of Campaign 2000. Little known before, he emerged with a positive image and earned political chits through his prolific fund-raising. A pro-business pol with a morally conservative streak, Lieberman ran comfortably on Gore's populist platform--and helped Gore come within a butterfly ballot or two of snaring Florida for the ticket. ''Lieberman came out of this a real winner,'' says ex-Oklahoma congressman Dave McCurdy, president of the Electronic Industries Alliance.

If Democrats seek salvation beyond the Beltway, the top contender is Davis, California's popular first-term governor. He's clearly interested: Davis has amassed a $21 million war chest. Considered a liberal before assuming office, he has governed as a consensus-building moderate. He has rebuilt the state's school system after years of GOP budget cuts. That's one reason he's popular with California business--particularly Silicon Valley. But they don't call him Gray for nothing: He's a lackluster campaigner.

Massachusetts' Kerry and Nebraska's Kerrey are both decorated Vietnam vets, but the resemblances end there. The Midwesterner is a maverick who was trounced by Clinton in the '92 primaries, while the New Englander is a wealthy patrician with a liberal voting record. After two Senate terms, Kerrey is quitting Washington to head Manhattan's New School University. But he may be keeping an iron in the fire: This year, he contributed to numerous pols in New Hampshire and Iowa. The Massachusetts Kerry has become a leading voice on tech issues, working with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council on bridging the ''digital divide.'' If he runs, though, Republicans will paint him as a Ted Kennedy clone.

If Dems want a fresh face, they have a few ambitious fortysomething moderates to choose from: Senators Evan Bayh of Indiana and John S. Edwards of North Carolina. Among the dark-horse contenders: Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who has promised to serve out her six-year term but will be under pressure from the left to reconsider.

Gephardt remains the wild card. As leader of the House Democrats, he has won raves for uniting the party's rowdy factions. He is unlikely to run for President if he becomes Speaker after 2002. If Dems lose ground on Capitol Hill, however, Gephardt might decide to give the White House a shot. This son of a St. Louis milkman has strong ties to labor and minority elected officials. His philosophy has evolved over the years from tax-reforming, Democratic Leadership Council centrist to pro-union protectionist to coalition-building tech booster. To appease corporate types, he has embraced fiscal responsibility, increased international trade, and Presidential fast-track trade negotiating rights. If Gephardt tries a second run at the White House in 2004, he would most likely run a Gore-type fusion campaign.

THE FORMULA. As the Presidential jockeying gets started, the ideological warfare will accelerate. Some liberals want to curtail the power of the New Democrats, arguing that Gore's failure was caused by his ties to the centrists, not populist rhetoric. ''The Democrats will be tempted to lurch to the left to satisfy Nader,'' argues Republican consultant Scott W. Reed. And moderates say they will seize the offensive against the Old Guard. ''There will be a bloody period of battle and finger-pointing,'' says Progressive Policy Institute President Will Marshall, a leading centrist. ''Gore squandered a winning hand [by veering left]. Democrats are only going to recapture the White House by getting back to the proven [Clinton] formula for success.''

But what's the formula? Gore learned on Nov. 7 that even an enthusiastic turnout among union members and minority voters can't guarantee a Democratic victory in the Electoral College. The challenge for the 2004 nominee is to maintain the party's base while making inroads among the ever-increasing number of New Economy voters--particularly the economically conservative, socially liberal, and politically independent brand of affluent young worker.

Still, despite semi-apocalyptic predictions, the Democrats of 2000 seem far less dejected than after other recent defeats. The reason: They see Bush as a weak President-elect without a mandate, who faces a slowing economy. That could help them retake Capitol Hill in 2002 and go for a clean sweep in 2004. As we know, stranger things have happened.

By Richard S. Dunham
Correspondent Dunham covered the Presidential campaigns.

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Commentary: The Search Begins for a Democratic Savior

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