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To Run or Not to Run?

By David Shribman

TWIN MOUNTAIN, N.H. -- Not a good sign when, six months from the Iowa caucuses, a lot of the talk is about two people who are not running for president.

On the Republican side, that talk is about Fred Thompson, actor, former senator, possible savior of the GOP from whatever it is -- too close an identification with the Iraq war, too changeable a position on abortion, too much divergence from conservative orthodoxy on social issues -- that ails it. He may announce his intentions on July 4. On the Democratic side, that talk is about Al Gore, film entrepreneur, environmental crusader, winner of the popular vote but loser of the electoral college. He'll wait longer.

Mr. Gore is the man of the hour, though perhaps not the next president of the United States. His face is on the cover of Time, his movie is in the theaters, his book is in the stores, his name is on the lips of Democrats coast to coast.

As long ago as the age of Aristotle, we have known that nature abhors a vacuum. But there is no vacuum in the Democratic Party right now, at least in the wing of the party where Mr. Gore is positioning himself. There are plenty of people saying what he is saying, though if you read his book all the way through you will see that he is saying it with far more intensity, far more passion, than his colleagues. And yet Mr. Gore persists, a spectral image on the fringes of the Democratic race. There is a sense that the contest will not begin until he decides whether he is in it.

That's a strong, and an unusual, position to occupy, especially since Mr. Gore is so well-known and so well-defined. The last Democrat to play this role was Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, and much of his appeal was speculative; no one knew whether the poetry of his campaign style in New York (and on display in his stirring address at the San Francisco convention in 1984) would translate nationally or, more specifically, in the small towns of New Hampshire. Political junkies crave what they don't have, or never have had.

But there isn't a Democratic voter alive who doesn't know Mr. Gore, his style, his approach, his interests. Many of them are Gore critics, believing he didn't fight fiercely enough in the overtime after the 2000 balloting, or that he was too reluctant to enlist the assistance of Bill Clinton in the closing days of that election.

And yet for all those reservations, all those mixed feelings, all those tears of disappointment, all that letdown, Mr. Gore could be the Reggie Jackson of the Democratic race: the straw that stirs the drink. The question is whether he will be Mr. October, which is about the latest he could plunge into the race. One thing seems sure: The snow that still hugs the sides of Mount Washington will be gone before he decides.

Right now Mr. Gore is avoiding letting anyone -- even those very close to him -- know his plans, or even his inclinations. He has assembled a bit of a political shop, gathering old hands and politicos close to him, and he has played the movie and his books with great skill. He gets style points, too, for sticking his finger in the eye of the press -- one of the major themes of his latest book, "The Assault on Reason," is the failures of the mass media -- even as he benefits from the attention of the press.

So far Mr. Gore has only decided to think about running. He has not decided to run. The field is more complicated now than when he devised his late-entry strategy; the surprise candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, now competing with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for top spot in the party lists, has added to the complexity of the calculus. So, too, has the compression of the political calendar, with so many states voting so much earlier than the last time he ran.

But this remains the same: Mr. Gore is a formidable competitor for the support of the new powers in the Democratic Party, both the netroots and the grassroots. He was the guy who most vociferously warned about global warming. He was the guy who most ardently supported the technological revolution and the Internet, which increasingly are the oxygen of modern politics. This gives Mr. Gore instant affinity and credibility in these new power centers.

Some people close to Mr. Gore believe he could raise $15 million in a week, $50 million in a month. These new power centers are also wealth centers.

Whispering in his ear -- run, Al, run -- are Joel Hyatt, the onetime legal entrepreneur, and Steve Jobs, the techno maven. But in the back of his mind is the notion that this time he could run a different kind of campaign, a more authentic one, shorn of all the high-priced and highly irritating advisers and consultants and pollsters who cramped his style and muddied his message in 2000. (They did it in 1988, too, but that's another matter.) He'd run as the reluctant warrior and as a man moved by the issues of his time, not by the conviction, shared so blatantly by Ms. Clinton, Mr. Obama and others, that his time has come.

So in the end, Mr. Gore and Mr. Thompson, the other noncandidate candidate from Tennessee, will do the same thing. They held the same seat in the Senate -- its prior occupants included Cordell Hull, Estes Kefauver and Howard H. Baker Jr., all of whom had presidential ambitions -- and together they will hang back awhile and see how things develop; the charms of Iowa in August are much overrated.

If they see a clear path to the nomination they'll take it. If they see obstacles they won't. They both depend in part on the stumbles of others. But Tennessee is the Volunteer State, and neither man has volunteered yet. That's because both can afford to wait, and will.

Copyright 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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