In the wake of what now appears to have been a disastrous speech by Al Gore in San Francisco, advisers are telling Sen. Joe Lieberman to step up to the plate and knock his former running mate out of the 2004 election cycle for good. Gore's speech, which is now being widely criticized both inside and outside his party, was poorly received even inside the Fairmont Hotel from which Gore pontificated.
"The audience was respectful, but he misjudged the crowd," says a member of the Commonwealth Club, which sponsored Gore's Iraq policy speech. "These were business people, civic leaders, not a bunch of lefty war protesters. They weren't about to jump on his bandwagon. There was no standing ovation, no major applause lines. It was pretty subdued."
The growing furor over Gore's words and his increasing comfort as a full-out lefty have given Lieberman's backers what they see as a big opening for their man to break free of the self-imposed shackles chafing the Connecticut senator's political aspirations.
You'll recall that in the wake of their failed 2000 run, Lieberman pledged to Gore that he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination if the former vice president decided to run again. Around Washington it's now known simply as "The Promise," and Lieberman's Senate colleagues and political advisers are whispering in his ear that it's now time for him to declare it null and void.
"It wouldn't be difficult for him to do," says a long-time Lieberman adviser. "Joe stands up on the Senate floor or in the right political situation and says, 'The Al Gore I made a promise to doesn't appear to exist anymore. The Al Gore I supported was like-minded on a wealth of issues foreign and domestic. Based on what I have seen and heard of late, that Al Gore is gone. I am my own man. I will seek the nomination.'"
"That would probably finish off Gore," says a Senate colleague of Lieberman's, who has not spoken to him about this. "But I can't imagine any setting where Joe would feel comfortable making a speech like that right now. It's certainly the kind of speech he could make, and he has said some tough things about Gore, but that's not a speech to be made on the floor of the Senate. On Imus, maybe, but not the Senate."
Democratic National Committee big-wigs say a strong, very public rebuke of Gore by Lieberman would effectively undercut any hope the Tennessean had of mounting a serious challenge for the nomination in 2004. "The media would play it up big," says a DNC donor who was present at the Commonwealth Club speech. "Gore wouldn't be in a position to really fight back. He'd be weakened, and you could just see Edwards, Kerry, Gephardt piling on. But it has to be someone like Lieberman that does it. He has the standing inside the party that others don't. And you just know Clinton would be in the background cheering them all on."
It's not as though Lieberman hasn't been thinking about this situation. On the eve of the Democratic Leadership Council meeting in New York earlier this summer, Lieberman in a partially off-the-record chat with reporters, made clear that he and Gore were headed down two different ideological roads, and questioned whether Gore was ever truly a "New Democrat." He cited Gore's lurch to the left and class warfare talk during the campaign as a key reason for the Democrats losing the White House.
At the time he re-buffed notion that he was already hedging on his promise not to challenge Gore, but his strong talk made clear that he understood he was going to have to make a tough decision sooner rather than later. Now his friends and allies are asking him to make it sooner than perhaps even he may have wanted.
"Gore's ignored just every solid piece of advice he's been given in the past six months and dug himself into a no-win situation. That speech was embarrassing," says a former Gore adviser now working on another Democratic presidential hopeful's campaign. "Does he really think he'll look smart or more presidential if Americans are dying in Iraq five months from now, and he stands up and says, 'See? I was right?' This guy's an anchor around our party's neck. Someone has to cut him loose."
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