Howard Dean has spent the last year campaigning to become the U.S. Democratic Party's nominee for the 2004 presidential elections. At first, the physician and former governor of the northeastern state of Vermont was seen as an unlikely challenger to Republican President George W. Bush. Dean's appeal seemed to be limited to younger voters and other members of the left wing of the Democratic Party. But Dean used the Internet to disseminate his ideas and to gather a large amount of small campaign donations. Now he is the best-financed candidate seeking his party's nomination, and polls show that he leads the eight other Democratic candidates in polls in the first states to conduct pre-nomination votes. Perhaps most importantly, he has won the endorsement of one of the most prominent Democrats in America.
Washington, 10 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking yesterday at a campaign event in New York, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore spoke the words that presidential hopeful Howard Dean most wanted to hear. Gore voiced his endorsement of the front-running candidate for the Democratic Party's nomination for president.
There are nine publicly declared candidates for the party's nomination, many of them with impressive credentials -- including Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate in the 2000 presidential elections.
But Gore said Dean brings a unique quality to the effort to unseat Republican incumbent Bush, who beat Gore by a narrow margin in the controversial 2000 vote.
"Howard Dean really is the only candidate who has been able to inspire, at the grassroots level all over this country, the kind of passion and enthusiasm for democracy and change and transformation of America that we need in this country," Gore said.
Gore also applauded Dean for his early opposition to the Iraq war, saying Dean had the "insight and courage to say and do the right thing" at a time when few politicians were speaking out against the Bush administration.
The endorsement is a significant boost for Dean. As the Democrats' last presidential nominee, Gore is at least the nominal leader of his party. Many observers say this is a way to show that Dean is acceptable to the party's mainstream despite the perception in some quarters that he is a "fringe" candidate.
But one longtime observer says Gore's move actually may mean more to Gore than to Dean. Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, tells RFE/RL that this could put Gore firmly in charge of the Democratic Party. He says it is not enough for him to be merely its nominal leader.
Sabato says Gore wants to be, in his words, the party's "leader in fact." This, according to Sabato, would give Gore great influence on the White House if his endorsement helps Dean win the presidency.
If Dean wins the Democratic nomination but loses to Bush in the general election next year, Sabato says, Gore then probably would inherit Dean's many dedicated supporters to help him in a possible second run for the presidency in 2008.
Sabato says Gore sees a parallel between himself and Richard Nixon, who lost a closely fought presidential election campaign to John F. Kennedy 43 years ago, but made a stunning political comeback and was elected president in 1968.
"He's the Democratic Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon lost a squeaker of a race for president in 1960, and ran eight years later and won the presidency. That's exactly what Al Gore would at least like to consider doing for 2008," Sabato said.
Sabato says Gore's endorsement is also valuable in helping Dean win the Democratic nomination. The party is currently dominated by moderates, self-described "new Democrats" who say Dean is too far left of center to be able to defeat Bush in November. The party establishment now is more comfortable with less controversial candidates such as Senator John Kerry or Congressman Richard Gephardt, the leader of the minority Democrats in the House of Representatives.
Sabato says Gore's warm and thorough endorsement of Dean was a sign to the party's "new Democrats" that the former vice president is prepared to move the party back to the left -- and that it should put all its support behind Dean to improve his chances of defeating Bush:
"The ultimate establishment individual, Al Gore, has now embraced [Dean] fully -- not mildly but fully -- so the 'new Democratic' crowd is out in the cold, and they will have enormous difficulty getting any of their [candidates] nominated," Sabato said.
This view is not shared by Bill Frenzel, who served as a Republican member of the House of Representatives. He tells RFE/RL that he is reluctant to speculate on whether Gore's endorsement of Dean means an end to centrist control of the Democratic Party. In fact, he says the party is so big and so diverse that such assessments may be oversimplifications.
Frenzel says he is similarly unsure whether Dean is as left-of-center as most political observers say he is. He cautions that a presidential candidate's stand on the issues is best understood after the frantic campaign for the nomination is over, and the candidate can focus less on showing a quick mind and more on developing ideas.
Therefore, Frenzel says, Gore's endorsement may be nothing more than accepting reality. He expressed the opinion using a rural metaphor.
"[The endorsement] seems to be an admission from Gore and probably the people who supported him the last time around [in the 2000 presidential campaign] that Dean is running away with the endorsement, and people who want to have something to say about the party in the future better get on the wagon before it gets down to the bottom of the hill," Frenzel said.