The Making of a Comeback

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CALLIE SHELL/AURORA FOR TIME

In New York, the ex-Veep is pushing two new books and giving TV interviews

Al Gore had spent nearly every election night since 1976 waiting anxiously in a hotel suite for his moment to take the stage of a hot, crowded ballroom, where the music was inevitably too loud and the lines at the bar too long. So it must have felt strange, and maybe even a little liberating, to set up a television in the study of his new home on the edge of Nashville and watch the returns come in the way the rest of us do. Gore and his wife Tipper had campaigned or raised money for more than 50 Democrats, candidates for everything from Governor to county executive. Seven days earlier, in Minnesota for Senator Paul Wellstone's memorial service, Gore was upbeat enough to predict to Bill Clinton and Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe that the party would take back the House. But watching with their daughters Karenna, who had come in from New York, and Kristin, in from Los Angeles, the Gores saw the political carnage spread across the map. Al and Tipper each picked up a phone, plastered on a smile and began calling their party's candidates, mostly to offer condolences.

Only now—after an election that seemed to give George W. Bush a strong mandate to lead the American people—is Gore beginning to talk frankly about the man who narrowly defeated him in that painful presidential election two years ago. Despite the triumph that Bush enjoyed this Election Day, Gore is on the offensive. Bush's economic agenda, he says, is "catastrophic," his foreign policy "horrible," his environmental stance "immoral."

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"Our country is headed for very deep trouble," Gore told Time. "I wish it were not so, but I believe that with all my heart. I think that our economic plan has zero chance of working. I think that it is wrong at its core. I think that our foreign policy, based on an openly proclaimed intention to dominate the world, is a recipe for getting our country in some of the worst trouble it's ever been in." Bush, Gore says, has compiled the worst economic record since Herbert Hoover. "For Democrats to lose the Senate and to lose ground in the House means that we have got to examine what we could have done more effectively as a party. I think it's the time now for us to be a loyal opposition, not just in name but in reality, and to present a clear alternative."

This is the New Gore, a man who no longer speaks as if every sentence has been preapproved by his pollsters and handlers. After nearly two years of teaching, writing and mulling, Al Gore is in full comeback mode, road testing his popularity in the guise of a 25-day tour to promote the two books about families that he and Tipper have written. It's a multimedia show that has already included a soul-baring session with Barbara Walters, a genuinely funny exchange with David Letterman and several print interviews, including, of course, this one. This week, expect to see him with Katie Couric (twice) and Larry King; next month he'll be the host of Saturday Night Live.

Gore has decided to break cover at a moment when his party is in full retreat, a leaderless army that in its disarray risks solidifying its status as a minority. Since the election, the Democrats have veered left with the selection of a San Francisco liberal, Nancy Pelosi, as their House leader. And they have veered right with a prompt post-election capitulation to the President on a homeland-security bill. It is a family feud over whether to sharpen or blur their differences with Bush.

Is Gore, still scarred from his 2000 loss, the man to give direction to a party that has lost its way? It is a vexing question, not just for the Democrats, but for Gore himself. He says he will decide over the next six weeks or so whether to make another run for the White House. He has in recent days begun phoning former aides and key supporters, some of whom he hasn't contacted for months. His questions define the calculation: What do you make of the election? What does it mean for me? He says he is prepared for another murderous campaign. But the big question—Will Al Gore run?—turns on one that everyone is asking in public but that he raises only in private: Can Al Gore win?

Our polling has good news and bad news for him. In a Time/cnn survey conducted last week, 61% of Democrats said they would like to see Gore run for President in 2004, so at the moment, the nomination is his to lose. Against the six most likely challengers (Joe Lieberman, Tom Daschle, John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, John Edwards and Howard Dean), Gore is favored by a whopping 53% of Democrats. (No one else gets more than 10%.) If Hillary Rodham Clinton's name is included, it becomes a contest, though Gore would outpoint her 36% to 26%. Barring some slip in the early 2004 tests in New Hampshire or Iowa, Gore is likely to prevail in a front-loaded primary system that gives the candidate with the greatest name recognition a big advantage.

But if Gore ran today against Bush, the poll shows, Bush would win handily, 57% to 40%. That suggests that no matter how much Al Gore has changed as a candidate since 2000, the mood of the country would have to undergo a much more dramatic shift over the next 24 months for Gore to topple Bush. Give Gore credit for speaking so bluntly to Time about the issues, but as of today, candor is not the problem: unless Bush stumbles badly on the economy and the war on terrorism next year, Gore will not get the traction he hopes for by speaking out on the issues that matter most to him.

The image Gore wants the world to see is of a man who in defeat has a clearer idea of who he is and what he stands for. He pronounces himself "over it," and according to people close to him, he is generally more relaxed, more comfortable in his skin. "He has been less process oriented and less programmed than I've ever seen him," says former aide Elaine Kamarck. "He has a much more easygoing attitude toward the world than I ever knew him to have." One clue as to how he got there may be a little book in the Arlington, Va., house where he and Tipper have spent most of the past two years—The Meditation Year: A Seasonal Guide to Contemplation, Relaxation and Visualization. "Both Tipper and I have meditated for quite a while," he says, "and we both believe in regular prayer."

Then there is the century-old mansion—yes, a white house—at the end of a gaslighted driveway in a quiet, moneyed section of Nashville. The Gores are still moving in, and the place suggests they are moving on as well. The foyer holds the baby grand piano on which Tipper took her childhood lessons, and they have finally hung the oil portraits painted when their children were little—an empty-nester prerogative now that the kids are no longer around to object. There are few mementos of Al's eight years working in that other White House—and none in sight from the brutal campaign that left Gore in what he and Tipper call "that little-known third category" of winning the popular vote but losing the race.

On the stump, Gore is calm and likable, far more the person his friends have always said they see in private. The tortured jokes about being stiff have been retired, replaced by entertaining riffs about the indignities of his sudden, involuntary re-entry into private life. He calls himself "the man who used to be the next President of the United States" and laments that instead of flying Air Force Two, he now has to take his shoes off to get on an airplane. Marvels Bill Curry, an ex-Clinton White House aide defeated in his bid for Connecticut Governor: "Having Gore in to campaign for me was like having Jay Leno. He washed away people's misgivings, and that was a lot to accomplish. Is he somebody who can sell himself? He was when I saw him."

This is the man, remember, who in 2000 got more votes than any other Democratic candidate in history. His core supporters are folks who still nurse the wounds of Florida, those who cheered in September when he stood nearly alone among the party's leaders in challenging Bush on Iraq. Gore wrote that speech in his room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, organizing his thoughts, as is his custom, by papering the walls with supersize Post-it notes. A day later, at a political rally in Santa Fe, N.M., he gave voice to many of the party faithful, who chanted, "Say no to war!" Restaurant owner Herb Cohen was there with a hand-lettered sign that read we support you, al. As for the rest of the party's leaders? "No guts," Cohen said.

But the speech in San Francisco—in which Gore warned that a campaign to oust Saddam Hussein could "seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism"—was roundly trashed by the party hierarchy and some of Gore's former aides. It was, they said privately, an opportunistic lurch to the left, putting Gore on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of politics and the wrong side of his own record as one of the few Democrats to vote in favor of the first President Bush's war against Saddam. "I had close friends who were really angry about that speech," Gore says. "That's the peril of taking an unvarnished approach to issues. And whether I run again or not, that's what I intend to do. Those who like it, great. Those who don't—I'm sorry, but I don't care." In fighting terrorism, Gore says he would have gone to war in Afghanistan, as Bush did, but says the President's rejection of international peacekeepers in the aftermath is "coming back to haunt us."

Gore has been marching leftward into treacherous issue terrain. His speech on the economy nine days after he spoke out on Iraq was timid and unfocused, sidestepping the question of how to respond to Bush's tax cut. Gore now tells Time that he would "scrap the whole thing and start over," with less dramatic cuts aimed at the middle class. Last week he startled an audience in Manhattan with the revelation that as the country copes with a health-care system in crisis, he has "reluctantly" come to support a radical idea that has long been a liberal dream: single-payer health care. In such a system, currently practiced in Canada, health care is financed by taxes, and the government pays everyone's medical bills. It would be a far bigger step than even Hillary Clinton's 1994 proposal, which never made it to the floor of either house of a Democratic Congress.

How voters will react to the new Gore is unknowable. But running behind such bold initiatives could be his only shot. "There's a front runner in terms of name recognition. There's no front runner in terms of the passion we know we need, the leadership and the vision," says Donna Brazile, Gore's 2000 campaign manager. "Al Gore, if he decides to run, has to come out with a platform and a vision and stick to it regardless of what anybody says."

But how much about himself can he really change at the age of 54, and how much is embedded in his dna? Gore now acknowledges that he micromanaged his campaign into incoherence. "I don't think I'm a very good political tactician. As a matter of fact, I think I'm pretty lousy at it," he told Time. "I don't think I'm a good campaign manager, particularly not good at managing myself as a candidate." Or managing others: Where Bush relied on—and trusted—a few key advisers like Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, Gore's team was a shifting cast of backbiting pollsters and strategists, none of whom were ever sure where they stood with the candidate. His wife and kids seemed to be the only people he really trusted.

Throughout his career, Gore's main assets have been his ideas, his decisiveness and his ability to discern things before just about anyone else. As Clinton agonized over Bosnia, it was Gore who convinced him that bombing would bring the Serbs to the peace table. Gore coined the term "information superhighway" in the 1970s, and he was already worrying about global warming when he was in college. His strengths, he says, are "listening and translating what people are telling me into practical plans for making it happen. I think I'm better at looking over the next ridge."

But, as he now comprehends, those qualities were not on display in his presidential campaign. It was a frenzy of photo ops and criss-crossing messages, driven by the news cycle and the demands of interest groups. He pandered to South Florida by backing a bill to make Elian Gonzalez a permanent U.S. resident, and he quit talking about the environment when pollsters and consultants told him it could hurt him. Each week seemed to bring a new policy pronouncement, another gimmick to jump-start the campaign, which is why even his evolving wardrobe became a metaphor for a man who had no idea what he stood for. "I sometimes made the mistake of putting too much emphasis on tactics," Gore says. "As I look back on the campaign, I remember too many times when I was in a car or an airplane on the way to a series of events that were symbolic and crafted with a technical objective in mind. I should have been spending much more of that time communicating clearly and directly about the major issues."

Gore was also determined to highlight the contrast with Bush, who barely broke a sweat, taking weekends off and rarely campaigning past suppertime. The Texas Governor not only traveled with his pillow from home but was also surprised to find that other people didn't. Gore now sees what the late-night comedians didn't: Bush understood his limits and maintained his focus. "I learned from him," says Gore. "Whoever our nominee is in 2004, if it's not me, I would advise to take a page from President Bush."

But Gore rejects the central criticism that has become part of the 2000-campaign conventional wisdom: that he blew what might have been a peace-and-prosperity landslide because he refused to cling to Clinton's stained legacy. The day the Supreme Court decision came down awarding Bush the presidency, Hillary Clinton offered a poignant analysis of the choice they both had faced. Gore lost, the New York Senator-elect told friends, because he couldn't separate his personal anguish over Clinton's behavior with Monica Lewinsky from his own self-interest.

That wasn't an option, in Gore's view, what with Bush promising at every campaign stop to restore honor and dignity to the White House. Gore concedes he might have been more adept at pointing out the difference between "a single personal mistake on the part of the President and one of the greatest records of success that any Administration had ever compiled." But had the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 the other way, Gore says ruefully, some of his critics might be saying, "You threaded the needle pretty skillfully on that."

In the months after, the Gores moved back into the house that Tipper's grandparents built in 1938, where they lived during his years in Congress. Their youngest graduated from high school, and Tipper cared for her terminally ill mother. She briefly considered a Senate bid from Tennessee, and told Time she still may run for office someday. Despite the ambivalence she has sometimes shown about her husband's career, several people close to the couple say, she's eager to see him suit up for a rematch.

As for Gore, the first few months after the election were a time for the shock to settle in. "There was this sadness in his eyes that gave me chills," says a former aide. Gore turned the corner that summer, when he gave up his Secret Service protection and took a six-week European vacation with Tipper, the longest break of their 32-year marriage. Incognito under beard, baseball cap and sunglasses, Gore finally relaxed, and "by the time I got back from that vacation, I was pretty much over it."

He thought he might take his first step back into the arena in September, at the Iowa Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, where two years earlier he savaged Bill Bradley as lacking the heart to "stay and fight." But Sept. 11 intervened; instead of the battle cry Gore might have delivered, he praised his former opponent as "my" Commander in Chief. Now some Democrats are wondering why Gore didn't stay and fight. For most of the past two years, he has withdrawn inside a tight circle consisting largely of aides and friends from his days before the White House. He has been trying on occupations—college professor, author, businessman, even adviser to Google—that might suit someone of his temperament had fate not made him the only son and namesake of a U.S. Senator.

The moneymen and the party elite are cool to him now, but that could change quickly if he enters the race: everyone loves a front runner. Meanwhile, the field is coalescing quickly. Massachusetts Senator Kerry says he will decide soon, though everyone figures it's a done deal. House Democratic leader Gephardt just shed that title, presumably to begin preparing for a campaign. Edwards last week gave a well-received economic address, part of the North Carolina Senator's effort to prove he is more than a pretty face. Vermont Governor Dean is showing an insurgent John McCain-like appeal. And Gore's running mate, Connecticut Senator Lieberman, vows not to run if Gore does but is laying the groundwork for a campaign anyway. "If he decides to change his mind, that is entirely his right," Gore says.

At the White House, there is an ongoing parlor game to rate Bush's possible Democratic challengers in 2004. Political guru Rove figures union support will give Gephardt the nomination. Another Bush adviser says Edwards' charisma and experience as a trial lawyer enable him to confront Bush's coziness with business. Yet another views Kerry as the toughest potential rival: "The people who assume we can kill Kerry are the same people who thought Bill Clinton was a hick who couldn't win." They all but dismiss Gore. But then their boss is living proof of the power of low expectations.

And though Gore may seem like a long shot, there's some history worth recalling. In the final hours of the 2000 campaign, Gore startled an aide aboard Air Force Two with the observation that, if he ran again in eight years, he would be about the age of Richard Nixon when he finally won. Nixon, after all, was then the last Vice President to lose a close one.