Gore stakes claim for next time around

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The Independent Online
Hardly had Al Gore entered the Democratic Convention on Monday night than the chants began: "Gore in Four, Gore in Four." Whether the summons was spontaneous, or pre-planned like most proceedings in the hall, is irrelevant. As with every convention featuring an incumbent president, Chicago '96 has a subtle subplot - the jockeying among potential party standard-bearers the next time around, in four years.

Almost from the day Bill Clinton took office, the least well-kept secret in Washington has been that Mr Gore wants to succeed where he failed in 1988, and win the top job for himself. And the clearest pointers to his ambitions have come - not from inside the United Center where he delivers his vice-presidential acceptance speech tonight - but among the fringe events around town.

By the time the convention ends tomorrow, he will have spoken at 17 of them: at fundraisers, and to audiences of labour activists, women and other key party constituencies. He will have made speeches not just to delegations from the giant states of California and New York, but to a couple of tiny ones - Iowa and New Hampshire, where the crucial first tests of the 2000 primary season happen to be scheduled.

But conventions are showcases, and Mr Gore is not the only pretender on view in Chicago. His most obvious rival is the House Minority leader Richard Gephardt, who would become Speaker if the Democrats recapture Congress this autumn. Like Mr Gore, Mr Gephardt ran unsuccessfully eight years ago; and, like the Vice-President, he is everywhere to be seen this week.

No less menacing a potential rival is Christopher Dodd, the combative Connecticut Senator whose two years as Democratic National Committee chairman have seen him play a major role in recharging party morale after its 1994 mid-term disaster, and made him a familiar figure to grassroots activists across the country.

Queried about his plans for 2000, Mr Dodd trots out the standard answer: "I've never thought about it, the only thing that matters is November 5, and re-electing President Clinton."

But party leaders in the 42 states Mr Dodd has visited since 1994 might guess otherwise.

Inevitably, South Dakota's Tom Daschle, the Senate Minority leader, is mentioned too - though his disclaimers sound more convincing than Mr Dodd's. Another lurking figure is retiring Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who toyed with making a primary challenge to Mr Clinton earlier this year. But events here confirm that the moderate Mr Bradley is admired - but little-loved.

The most intriguing name, however, is Evan Bayh of Indiana, popular Democratic Governor of a state which invariably votes Republican in presidential elections, and assigned the distinction of giving last night's keynote speech. Another moderate, Mr Bayh is only 40, and already identified as the "next Clinton". He too, some feel, might take his chances in 2000.

But at this stage the odds overwhelmingly favour Mr Gore. Of the last eight vice-presidents, five later became their party's nominee and three went on to be president. A sitting vice-president can draw on the massive organisational and patronage clout of his boss.

Mr Gore has little of the speaking charisma of Mr Clinton, but appeals to both wings of the party. Liberals like his advocacy of social and environmental issues. But by Democrat standards he is hawkish on defence, an economic centrist, and, like Mr Clinton, a former stalwart of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. Above all, he has pulled off the feat of being scrupulously loyal and subordinate to the President, while remaining very much his own man.

Leading article, page 11