Gore takes tentative step back on political stage

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The Independent US

Seven months after he conceded the tightest presidential election in modern American history and vanished off the political map, Al Gore took a tentative step towards a comeback at the weekend with the first of a series of appearances in Tennessee.

The former vice-president, still sporting the beard he grew on holiday in Europe, led a bipartisan political workshop in Nashville on Saturday. Yesterday, he opened a private training academy for young political operatives. And last night he was to meet a variety of political figures at a barbecue – an attempt at fence-mending after the embarrassing loss of his home state to George Bush last November.

Although none of these events was open to the public, they marked Mr Gore's first foray back into US politics since the election. His silence has been welcomed by some in the Democratic Party who believe he blew their opportunity to win the White House. They now wish he would go away and leave the field to someone else.

Mr Gore has given no indication of whether he will run again in 2004, but he is likely to make up his mind over the next few months. "He is testing the waters to see how receptive the Democratic Party is to another Gore presidential campaign,'' commented John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

In the meantime, he has committed to campaign for James McGreevey, the Democratic candidate for governor of New Jersey, has set up an office in Nashville and intends to launch a political action committee in Virginia.

According to recent opinion polls, Mr Gore's popularity still runs level with Mr Bush's and about two-thirds of Democrats would like to see him take another stab at the White House.

It certainly helps his standing that he won half a million more votes than Mr Bush, and that many Democrats feel he was cheated of the presidency by the protracted legal wrangling over recounts in Florida.

But figures near the top of the party feel Mr Gore was a terrible candidate who could now prove highly divisive as the Democrats' figurehead because of a major falling out with his one-time mentor, Bill Clinton. The former president blames Mr Gore for not involving him more in the campaign; Mr Gore believes Mr Clinton was a liability.

It will not help Mr Gore's cause that Mr Clinton's chief fund-raiser, Terry McAuliffe, is now the party's kingmaker, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

* Jesse Helms, the radical, conservative isolationist who until May headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is expected to announce his retirement at the end of his current term, in January 2003.

Mr Helms lost that committee perch in May because of the change of leadership to the Democrats. The 79-year-old North Carolina Republican has for some time been confined to a wheelchair by a neurological disorder.