Sixteen months after the U.S. Supreme Court ended the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore's political hibernation is about to end.
The former vice president has picked an auspicious setting for what aides are suggesting will be his most overtly political speech since he lost the presidency to George W. Bush. On Saturday, he will address 2,500 Democratic activists, the first big gathering of Florida Democrats since the bitterly contested recount that raged here for 36 days.
Gore's speech comes amid debate and dissension within the Democratic Party over whether he should make another run for president. While Gore will draw the most attention over the weekend, he will be sharing the stage with a number of other Democrats who are also actively exploring whether to seek the party's nomination in 2004.
A Gallup Poll for CNN and USA Today, published today, showed that Democrats are sharply divided over whether Gore should run in 2004, with 48 percent saying no and 43 percent saying yes. Last August, 65 percent of Democrats surveyed said they thought he should run, and 31 percent were opposed.
Bob Poe, the Florida Democratic Party chairman, said Gore's absence from the political scene explains that declining interest. "If Coca-Cola were to cease marketing for six months, they'd lose market share," Poe said. "Al Gore hasn't been marketing himself. It's a natural consequence."
Poe said Gore retains many of his supporters among the activist corps and among major donors, but he acknowledged that many people are sitting on the sidelines for now. "I think people are all over the map," he said.
Gore is likely to receive an enthusiastic welcome here, given what happened in this state in 2000, and Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) dismissed talk that Gore has lost considerable support among rank-and-file Democrats. "I know there are people who are frustrated with him and want him to disappear from the face of the earth, but that's not the majority of Americans," he said. "If he wants the nomination, it's his."
Gore went underground after the election out of deference to Bush. Then after Sept. 11, he pledged his support to Bush in the war against terrorism, calling the president "my commander in chief."
This year Gore has been inching his way back into public life, and many Democrats say it is now time for him to help his party get ready for this fall's midterm elections by laying out a tough critique of Bush's domestic priorities. Gore's long absence only raises expectations for his speech here. "The bar is high for him because he's done very little of this," said one former member of the Gore 2000 team.
Some Gore friends say he understands all this but may be operating on a timetable that is different from that of those publicly urging a return to partisanship. Gore has said he has not decided whether to run in 2004 and will not until much later in the year. "He would find it amusing that some of the same columnists clamoring for him to speak were telling him to shut up two years ago," said another member of his 2000 team.
Donna Brazile, Gore's 2000 campaign manager, predicted that Gore will "lay out a strong case why Democrats should take on the president on a host of issues" on Saturday. "No one else knows [better than Gore] the daunting challenges of taking on Bush," she said.
That's precisely what has prompted so much debate within the circles of party activists, many of whom believe that Gore failed to defeat Bush under almost ideal circumstances, running as an incumbent vice president at a time of extended prosperity.
With Bush enjoying strong approval ratings since Sept. 11, many of these Democrats are looking for an alternative to Gore, and this weekend's convention amounts to a preview of 2004 for the delegates.
Gore's former running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), will speak Sunday. He has said he will not run for the presidential nomination if Gore decides to, but he is aggressively exploring a candidacy.
Sens. John Edwards (N.C.) and John F. Kerry (Mass.) speak on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Neither is well known to party activists in Florida, and this weekend provides their best opportunity to make positive first impressions on delegates who may be holding one of the few Democratic straw polls in advance of the 2004 primaries and caucuses. "You just want to walk out with a relatively good impression," one Edwards adviser said.
Also appearing Saturday will be Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), whose past national chairmanship of the Democratic Party makes him well attuned to an audience of activists. Dodd has not ruled out running for the nomination but has not been energetically exploring a candidacy.
Two other prominent Democrats considered possible 2004 candidates, Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), will not be here. Gephardt will be in Iowa, scene of the first caucus of the presidential nominating season. "There may be a straw poll there [in Florida], but this trip to Iowa was more important," a Gephardt adviser said.
While the delegates here are eager to hear from Gore and the other national speakers, they are far more focused right now on defeating Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) in his reelection bid this fall than on denying the president a second term two years from now. (The Democratic candidate for governor will be selected in the primary in September.)
How much Gore, Lieberman and the others will talk about what happened here in 2000 is an open question. One Lieberman adviser predicted that both men will "stoke it up a little bit" but will be looking forward more than backward.
Still, Poe said, the memories of 2000 haven't faded away. "We can't forget it," he said. "We shouldn't forget it."