NEW YORK: In endorsing Presidential aspirant Howard Dean last week, Al Gore presented the American public with a strong sign of unity within the Democratic party - something it will need as it prepares to mount a challenge to President Bush in next year's election.
The emergence of Dean in the wake of strong antipathy among Democratic voters to Bush's scorched-earth conservative domestic and foreign policies has called attention to how the party has changed since it was forced out of power in recent years.
The Gore endorsement, a surprise to most observers, should remove any remaining doubts about the legitimacy of the Dean campaign within the Democratic establishment. Dean's status has evolved from darkhorse to front-runner on the strength of grassroots fundraising and his ability to rouse support for his strong antiwar position, as well as his opposition to Bush's tax cuts and other parts of his domestic agenda. His take on the war in Iraq, however, has provided fodder for his primary opponents who have tried to paint him as an extremist who couldn't pose a serious threat to Bush in the general election.
But Gore, an icon of the days when centrist politics ruled the Democratic party, singled out Dean's antiwar stance as the central reason for his endorsement. Moreover, Gore informally announced his support at a rally in Harlem, the historically black Manhattan neighborhood where former President Bill Clinton now has his offices, providing reporters with another symbol of an apparent bridge between old and new Democrats.
The candidate who lost the most in the endorsement was Joe Lieberman, who ran with Gore on the party's Presidential ticket in 2000. Already faring poorly in polls, Lieberman suffered another series of blows. Not only did he miss out on an important endorsement from a figure he probably should have been able to depend on, he learned about it in the worst possible way - from the media. The lack of forewarning left his campaign unable to spin the snub away.