As Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton cruises toward likely re-election, she enjoys an almost inexhaustible supply of funds and weak, divided opposition.
A big victory this fall, some supporters believe, is just step one toward a Clinton presidential restoration. Indeed, the former first lady is spending much of her time positioning herself for 2008 on issues from abortion to Iraq.
But behind that optimistic picture are some signs of Democratic discomfort over her prospective candidacy and the first signs she may yet face a formidable foe, former Vice President Al Gore.
A recent Newsweek poll showed that, by a 19-point margin, Americans favor a Democrat as their next president. But Mrs. Clinton regularly trails Republican Sen. John McCain in one-on-one match-ups, and surveys show significant numbers of Democrats hope she won’t run.
Gore, meanwhile, is re-emerging in public as narrator and producer of “An Inconvenient Truth,” a powerful though heavy-handed film that warns of impending environmental doom. He has yet to change his stance that he won’t run again, but some close friends think he ultimately will.
Gore, who for years has quipped that “I used to be the next president of the United States,” recently told the AP’s Ron Fournier he was “a recovering politician on about Step 9.” He told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival: “I don’t plan to be a candidate again for national office. I don’t see any circumstances that would cause me to change my mind.”
At this point, though, interest in a Gore candidacy comes less from the former vice president’s camp than from Democrats who fear Mrs. Clinton can’t beat McCain, the early GOP front-runner. Recent national matchups showed her from 4 to 11 points behind the Arizona senator.
In New York, a recent Marist poll put her lead over McCain within the margin of error. And 57 percent of Democrats thought it unlikely she would win the presidency, while 30 percent said she shouldn’t run.
Beyond concern about her chances, Mrs. Clinton’s biggest handicap could be her vote for the war in Iraq – and continued defense of it. Democrats overwhelmingly oppose the war, and their field seems certain to include one or more anti-war candidates.
Of the most likely possibilities, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, is little-known, and 2004 nominee John Kerry is well-known for his inconsistency on the issue. Gore is well-known and consistently has opposed the war.
In the past week, both Gore and Mrs. Clinton made high-profile appearances in Washington. In some ways, the similarities were greater than the differences.
Both the former vice president, in his movie detailing the threat from global warning, and the former first lady, who discussed energy at the National Press Club, gave serious, detailed expositions of vital issues facing the United States.
“This is probably a more wonkish speech than any of you anticipated,” Mrs. Clinton quipped after setting out a comprehensive, well-reasoned long-term program for reducing U.S. dependence on oil.
The biggest difference was that Gore spoke about a subject on which he has a long history of personal commitment. As Mrs. Clinton noted, he has been “a committed visionary on global warning for more than two decades.”
Indeed, it underscored the fact that, should he run in 2008, Gore could stress the kind of consistency that he lacked in both prior bids, especially on Iraq.
For the most part, political factors are driving growing talk of a Gore candidacy: Mrs. Clinton’s weakness vs. McCain, the fact that Gore is an established figure who polled a majority of votes in 2000, a stature beyond those of most other Democratic hopefuls and the likelihood that only he has the fund-raising potential to counter Mrs. Clinton.
On the other hand, he, too, has negatives: He was an uninspiring campaigner, showed poor political instincts and angered many Democrats by bungling the 2000 campaign and then abandoning the political arena without thanking many who worked hard for him.
Current polls show him even weaker against GOP rivals than Mrs. Clinton, though some Democrats believe he won’t inspire as much negativity as she does.
“Campaigns are about choices,” Republican Rep. Tom Davis noted last week. The main impetus for the Gore boomlet may be Democratic disquiet about choosing Mrs. Clinton.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.