Former Vice President Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean for the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday, adding momentum and political prestige to Dean's front-running campaign.
Gore said Dean, the former governor of Vermont, "really is the only candidate who has been able to inspire at the grassroots level all over the country." He said Dean also was the only Democratic candidate who made the correct judgment about the war in Iraq.
"Our country has been weakened in its ability to fight the war against terror because of the catastrophic mistake the Bush administration made in taking us to war in Iraq," Gore told several hundred people at a downtown convention center.
“I realized it’s only one of the issues, but my friends, this nation has never in our two centuries and more made a worse foreign policy mistake,” Gore said.
Five weeks before Iowa's kickoff caucuses, Gore and Dean appeared in Harlem, where Dean said he was honored to receive Gore's endorsement, before flying to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he is locked in a tight race with Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri in the Jan. 19 Democratic caucuses. There, the former vice president called on Democrats to unite behind his candidate.
“We don’t have the luxury of fighting among ourselves,” Gore said, sending a chilling signal to Dean’s eight rivals, who were stunned by Dean's political coup.
Dean under fire in debateDean flew to New Hampshire in time Tuesday night for the final Democratic debate of the year, which was overshadowed by Gore’s endorsement.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Gore’s spurned 2000 running mate, asserted that “my chances have actually increased today.” He said people had stopped him in the airport to express outrage over Gore’s backing of Dean.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said Gore’s tactics smacked of “bossism” and added: “We’re not going to have any big name come in now and tell us the field should be limited. ... No Democrat should shut us up today.”
Said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina: “We’re not going to have a coronation.”
And Gephardt declared, “I’m sure all of us think we have the best chance to beat George Bush.” But, he said, he stood a better chance than the others in the battleground states of the Midwest that would likely decide the election.
Approval bolsters Dean's caseGore won the popular vote by half a million votes in 2000 but conceded to Republican George W. Bush after a tumultuous 36-day recount in Florida and a 5-4 Supreme Court vote against him. The election still rankles Democratic activists, many of whom are still loyal to Gore.
A beaming Dean thanked Gore for his leadership and his endorsement. But he told reporters that only the voters would determine whether the endorsement cemented his grip on the front-runner’s position. “It doesn’t solidify anything,” he said.
Still, he hopes the former vice president, who is still popular among minorities, can draw blacks and Hispanics to a campaign fueled by upscale, white backers. In 2000, blacks supported Gore by a 9-to-1 ratio over Bush.
The approval of Bill Clinton's No. 2 also bolsters Dean's case that he can carry the party's mantle next November and represents more than an Internet-driven outsider. He hopes it eases concerns among party leaders about his lack of foreign policy experience, his testy temperament, several policy flip-flops and campaign miscues and edgy antiwar, anti-establishment message.
"What this says is that all these Washington insiders who have been gnashing their teeth, wringing their hands and clinging to their cocktail cups can relax now. Dean's been knighted by the ultimate insider," said Democratic consultant Dean Strother of Washington. "It's game, set and match. It's over."
Other Democrats offered more cautious appraisals, but the overwhelming consensus was that Dean's coup made him the overwhelming favorite to claim the nomination. Even advisers to Dean's rivals conceded that they were stunned and disheartened.
Lieberman caught 'off-guard'
"I was caught completely off-guard," Lieberman said Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show. That many of Gore's positions are opposite to those of Dean made the decision a surprise to him, Lieberman said.
"Al Gore has endorsed someone here who has taken positions diametrically opposite" of the former vice president, Lieberman said. "What really bothers me is that Al is supporting a candidate who is so fundamentally opposed to the basic transformation that Bill Clinton brought to this party in 1992," moving it to a more middle-of-the-road stance on economic policy and other areas, he said.
Asked on "Today" whether he felt betrayed by the former vice president, Lieberman said, "I'm not going to talk about Al Gore's sense of loyalty this morning."
Democratic strategist Steve Jarding of Virginia said, "This sends a clear signal that Dean is bringing together two major forces -- Democratic insiders and outsiders. Gore is the ultimate insider."
Jarding said, however, that Dean could still be beaten, "but it just got a ton harder."
Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist from Washington, said Gore would help Dean gain access to "some key constituencies, African-Americans and women and organized labor, and in Iowa."
But while Dean leads in polls in New Hampshire and Iowa, the race has not taken shape beyond the initial voting states, and Gore's endorsement will not erase every doubt about him. Analysts noted that Gore's uneven performance in 2000 alienated many party leaders, meaning his endorsement could have limited appeal, and they predicted that an anti-Dean movement would eventually form behind one of his eight rivals.
Stung by Gore's decision
Some rank-and-file Democrats were also stung by Gore's decision.
"It isn't fair that he turned his back on Lieberman," said Mohammed Islam, a New York taxi driver and longtime Democratic voter. "If he was good enough for him in 2000, why not now?"
In an unusual response, Democratic candidate Wesley Clark issued a statement touting the number of former Gore staffers working on his campaign.
In 1998, Dean considered challenging Gore for the Democratic nomination in 2000 but backed away amid opposition in Vermont and pressure from the vice president's office. He quietly lobbied to be mentioned as a vice presidential candidate, but he did not make Gore's short list.
The pair have differed on many key issues, such as gun control. While Gore fought the National Rifle Association, Dean was embraced by the lobby.
Gore is pre-eminent among the party's establishment, second only to former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. Officials close to both Clintons said Monday that they would not endorse in the primary race.
Gore announced Dec. 15, 2002, that he would not make another run for the White House, saying a rematch with Bush would force him to revisit the recount ordeal of 2000.