Yes, We Know It's 2002 ...

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Angela Rowlings/AP

Not Ready to Run: Tipper

There were only about 40 people on hand to witness it last Tuesday night when Al Gore dipped a tentative toe back into politics. At a fund raiser for Massachusetts Representative Richard Neal at a downtown Washington steak house, Gore — still bearded and not yet back in fighting trim — tried out a few self-deprecating one-liners. He spends his days teaching a bit, he told the smallish room. "I'm a visiting professor — v.p. for short. It's a way of hanging on."

Three days later, Gore was thinking about another title: candidate's spouse. As word spread that Tipper Gore was considering a run for the Senate seat being vacated by Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson — an idea that shocked those who knew her, since she barely tolerated her husband's campaigns — Al told friends he would support whatever decision she made. Daughter Karenna was said to be strongly in favor. But on Sunday, Tipper said she would not run for the seat.

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A rematch with George W. Bush seems to be what Al Gore has in mind. At a recent dinner for Democratic fund raisers in Manhattan, Gore ripped into Bush's handling of the presidency. The President's philosophy is "speak loudly and carry a small stick," he said. Fund raiser Robert Zimmerman, who organized the dinner, says, "We saw how energized he was and how enthusiastic he was about being in the national debate." The pointed critique may have been a test run for next month, when Gore will return to his Alamo, giving a speech to the Florida Democratic convention. Gore's team, or what's left of it — the top echelon of his 2000 campaign has long since moved on — promises he will "make news."

It's difficult to find a Democrat in Washington who doesn't say publicly that the nomination is Gore's if he wants it. But it's just as hard to find one who privately expresses any enthusiasm for the prospect. That doesn't bother Zimmerman, who says, "The Beltway underestimates Al and Tipper's very strong national following." Maybe so, but many big-and not-so-big-name Democrats are discovering that urgent matters demand their presence in states that happen to hold early presidential primaries. Even Gore's running mate seems to have got the bug: last weekend Senator Joe Lieberman's busy schedule in New Hampshire included an "informal street walk," a photo op with fire fighters and a "listening session with seniors." (Lieberman has said he will not run if Gore does, but made it clear that he expects his former running mate to make up his mind by the end of the year.) The weekend before, House minority leader Dick Gephardt, who represents St. Louis, made his third visit to New Hampshire in less than a year, ostensibly to honor a Super Bowl bet he had made with his counterpart in the New Hampshire legislature. And not long before that, Vietnam veteran John Kerry brought Democrats in Concord, N.H., to their feet with a stirring defense of their right to question Bush's handling of the war on terror.

On the calendar, the first caucus is still 23 months away. But for Democrats vying for the chance to take on Bush and his 75% approval rating, it feels like the day after tomorrow. At least five states expect to schedule their primaries right behind the New Hampshire and Iowa contests, which means, "for practical purposes, you are running in a national primary," Gephardt says. "The old Jimmy Carter state-by-state routine is not going to happen again."

Gephardt made time in New Hampshire to stump for John Kacavas, who was running for a spot on the state's executive council. Kacavas had other out-of-state supporters: Senators John Edwards, Lieberman and Kerry, as well as Vermont Governor Howard Dean. (Kacavas lost anyway.) Party activists, too, are making new friends. When Debra Crapo, vice chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, got home from a Gephardt event two weeks ago, she found a message on her answering machine from a political operative for Edwards, just checking in. Edwards had already written a note to Crapo's husband, thanking him for taking the time to meet with Edwards when he was in the state a few weeks ago. But the newcomer has a bit to learn: his note to Randy Crapo began, "Dear Bob... "