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Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 00:04 GMT
Democrats look for leader
Former Vice President Al Gore
Mr Gore thought his past would haunt him

Al Gore's decision not to run for the White House in 2004 has given new hope to a slew of Democratic presidential hopefuls who were playing catch-up for the party's nomination.

He might have decided not to run because he thought President George W Bush and the Republicans were too strong.

His move leaves the Democratic Party looking not only for a leader, but also for a new direction.

The party is engaged in a difficult debate over how to win against a hugely popular president and regain the White House.

Decision time

Senator Joseph Lieberman - who ran alongside Al Gore two years ago and had promised not to run if the former vice president threw his hat into the ring - says he is now going to consider "the awesome opportunity" he has to run for the presidency and that he'll announce his decision in the new year.

We have to come out as a party with definitive ideas and directions; otherwise we'll become a minority party

Bill Richardson, Democrat Governor of New Mexico

If, as most people expect, Mr Lieberman does run, he'll face a field that's likely to include fellow Senators John Kerry, Tom Daschle and John Edwards, Representative Dick Gephardt and Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

Professor Stephen Wayne, from Georgetown University says that now Mr Gore's gone, the race is wide open.

"Other than releasing Lieberman from his promise," says Professor Wayne, "I don't think it changes the political landscape all that much."

Al Gore's decision came at the end of a bizarre weekend for the former vice president. On Saturday night he presented a TV sketch show, poking fun at himself. Everybody assumed it was part of his electoral campaign.

Senator Joe Lieberman
Lieberman: To decide whether to run in a few weeks
But less than 24 hours later, he wrong-footed everyone.

Speaking at a book-signing session in North Carolina, he reiterated his reason for deciding not to stand.

"Because a race this time would have focussed on a Bush-Gore rematch, I felt that the focus of that race would inevitably have been more on the past than it should have been when all races ought to be focussed on the future," he said.

New direction?

Part of Al Gore's calculation may have been that he thought President Bush unbeatable.

With the President's approval ratings consistently above 60%, there is a huge debate in the Democratic Party about how they can regain the White House.

The beating the party took at the mid-term elections - where they lost control of the Senate and lost ground in the House of Representatives - has led to many people offering their opinions about which direction the party should go.

A significant winner for the party last month was former Clinton Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

He told BBC News that the first thing the party has to do is find a coherent voice. "Are we liberals, moderates, conservatives, are we centrists? We have to come out as a party with definitive ideas and directions; otherwise we'll become a minority party."

Many Democrats are calling for that direction to be leftwards, making the party more distinctive from the Republicans on a raft of issues like health care, social security and education.

But Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrats Network - a progressive think tank - says that is to fight the wrong election. He says that only two issues will matter in the next election.

"The Democratic nominee in 2004 has to understand how important the war on terrorism is and frankly have a better plan for keeping the country safe than Bush," he said.

"Second, the two recessions we've had in recent times have happened with guys named Bush in the White House. We've been the party of economic growth - we've got to make that argument to the American people," he added.

Al Gore says he realises his chance to win the presidency may have passed.

It certainly will have if a Democrat manages to beat Mr Bush in two years time, but at the moment it is anyone's guess as to who that Democrat will be.

See also:

15 Nov 02 | Americas
06 Nov 02 | Americas
15 Dec 02 | Americas
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