You almost certainly didn't notice, and you may shudder at the preposterous prematurity of it all, but most of the would-be presidents in the Democratic Party trekked to a hotel ballroom last week to take part in the first, unofficial scrimmage of the 2000 campaign. The occasion was the annual conference of the Democratic Leadership Council, the organization of self-described "New Democrat" centrists that Bill Clinton used both as a springboard to the nomination in 1992 and as an idea factory for such once un-Democratic proposals as reforming welfare and balancing the federal budget. Back then, the DLC was the home of malcontents frustrated by the party establishment's leftist orthodoxy -- and by its tendency to put forward sure-loser candidates like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. Now, thanks to Clinton's success as an Oval Office two-termer, DLC thinking has become the party's de facto theology, and its annual conference has developed into a station of the Democratic cross -- the place where, two years out from election day, all but the most liberal candidates must come to prove their mainstream appeal.
Al Gore was there, of course, in his role as Goliath. He was granted the prime speaking slot, and drew the biggest audience. And he arrived with an entourage so large and so befitting an heir to the throne -- complete with communications aides, speech writers and press secretaries, image consultants, policy experts and Secret Service agents -- that it seemed a deliberate effort to taunt his Democratic rivals, a dare to take him on. In his speech, he ignored them completely, choosing instead to tangle with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, upon whom Republican hopes for victory in 2000 have quickly come to rest. Without mentioning him by name, Gore derided Bush as a cheap convert to centrist politics, dismissing Bush's brand of "compassionate conservatism" as empty sloganeering. "Compassion is more than a pretty word," Gore monotoned. "It is the highest of all disciplines."