RAY SUAREZ: Now Democrats assess Gore's decision not to run for president. Maria Echaveste was the deputy chief of staff in the Clinton administration. She practices law in Washington, and is a member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee. Irene Natividad is the former chair of the National Women's Political Caucus. She also was deputy vice chair of the Democratic Party's Asian Caucus. And Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster.
Let me go around the table and get everyone's impressions about both the timing of the announcement that Al Gore see he wasn't going to make until early next year, and the decision itself to stay out. Maria?
MARIA ECHAVESTE: Well, I think it's typical Al Gore to do it in a way when no one else was expecting it, he led us to believe even a week before on one of the weekend shows that he was going to be announcing an economic plan and more details on his health care plan. And I saw that and said okay, he's running, because why else would you put together, unless you're auditioning to be economic adviser to someone else. And I think what we saw here was someone who just had his family around and realized that he wasn't ready to go through another campaign. And I'm glad that he made the decision when he made the decision, it puts a lot of people out of their misery. And now we have a nice wide open field.
RAY SUAREZ: Peter?
PETER HART: Great news. I think that the timing couldn't be better, opens up the race, it allows the other candidates to be able to tell their story, to talk about where they would go and what they're offering. In terms of the vice president, I think you have to say one thing - and he was not pushed out by public opinion, because in our latest NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll we actually found that his ratings had improved over October - so that his book tour had actually moved him further ahead in terms of the, I think he had 39 percent, against Kerry who was in second place at 13 percent. So he certainly had the opportunity. I think he made a good decision. And for the Democrats, I think it's a great decision.
RAY SUAREZ: Irene Natividad.
IRENE NATIVIDAD: I think it was a classy way to exit. Here he was at the prime of publicity, right, hitting almost every TV show, and all of a sudden, bam! And beginning to be perceived much more positively, he says, "I'm not going to run", a very wise decision, I happen to think. And at the same time, he leaves us with this sense of a very thoughtful, substantive person, who is still very much a player in the public policy field and within the Democratic Party. Nobody has his stature to date saying it's time for me to go. I don't think he could have done it better. Year-end is great, why wait until the beginning of the new year. It closes the midterm elections, as a matter of fact.
RAY SUAREZ: Both last night on television and in his news conference this afternoon he talked about the dynamics of running again against George Bush, and said, "It should be about looking forward, not back, and it would inevitably about looking back." Were members of the Democratic Party also worried about another Al Gore run against George Bush?
IRENE NATIVIDAD: Yes. I think it's probably not formally, but more kind of a sub rosa discussion. The world has changed since the time that Vice President Gore had run. And the issue of national security had a lot more resonance than people had estimated, and the mid term election showed that concern being sort of prevalent among the electorate.
Also the electorate has changed as well. A lot of the commentaries about the last election indicated that the base of the Democratic Party, people of color, for instance and women, some of them either had not come out or had shifted and moved to the Republican Party to vote for it this time around during mid terms because of concerns about the economy and concerns about security. And the new person, whoever emerges as the leader of the Democratic Party or any frontrunner candidate among the few that have been mentioned to date, will in some ways have to figure out how to bring out that base that didn't come out as strongly as it should have in the last election cycle.
PETER HART: Which is important, because what it really comes down to is that as long as Al Gore was in the race, every candidate was going to be defined off of Al Gore, rather than who this person was. Now they have the opportunity to be defined in terms of who they are, and they have the ability to rise up in terms of strength and show that they can lead America. The important thing is to show that you're not only big enough for the race, but big enough for the times. And I think that's going to be the real challenge because the difficulty for a Democratic candidate this time around is not to fall into constituency politics, where suddenly all of these various constituencies are open and you lose your message by playing constituency politics.
So what the Democrats, and any one of these candidates has to be able to do, is talk to a nation. And that's going to be a real challenge, because at the end of the day, one of them is going to be the Democratic nominee, and that person is going to have to be big enough to obviously play on the same stage as President Bush.
RAY SUAREZ: Maria Echaveste, we're talking about a guy who came in first in the popular vote in the last election, not an also-ran. Is there no stomach on the part of the Democratic rank and file for a rematch?
MARIA ECHAVESTE: I actually think there's a difference between the rank and file and what I would call the operatives you need to put in place to go win primaries. And I think there was a decided lack of enthusiasm; in a lot of the circles that I travel, there was not an overwhelming support for a Gore candidacy, not because people didn't think he'd make a great president - and that's actually watching him last night, made me sad because he really is smart, capable and he's done a tremendous amount for our country, and he would have been a fine president.
But the fact is that, analyzing the 2000 election, it shouldn't have been that close, and part of the responsibility lies at his feet. And so I think he took a look around and said, I'm doing well, I've got my family, I've got a new effort going, and I'm also, he hasn't stayed in touch with people over the last two years to really build that network that you need. If he was a man who was ready to come back after 2000, he would have been on the phone, I think, a year ago.
IRENE NATIVIDAD: But I wouldn't write him off.
MARIA ECHAVESTE: Oh, never. I want him to stay in because he's a man of ideas.
IRENE NATIVIDAD: But I don't even think we need to want him do that, I think he will do that. And to the extent that the other potential candidates will play off of against whatever statements he makes, I think he will still be a very influential factor in terms of the presidential nomination process.
RAY SUAREZ: What are the available second acts for a man who is very experienced, and still in political terms pretty young at 54?
PETER HART: Well, how about Richard Nixon? Richard Nixon obviously lost a very close race in 1960. 1962, he lost the gubernatorial race. And in 1964, or if we had done the program at this time, we wouldn't have had Richard Nixon to kick around anymore. Al Gore is a young person, he's 55 years old. Who can tell what 2008 looks like, or looking ahead?
So he's been smart enough to take himself out of the political circle, which really allows him to rebuild himself and reshape his image, and interestingly enough he's at his very best when he's thinking about ideas and talking about the future. So my guess is he will get a new hearing, and I think Irene is right, that he does count.
RAY SUAREZ: So he's not in any way a tragic figure at this point?
PETER HART: I don't think so at all.
RAY SUAREZ: I ask that because some analysts have been writing today about the kind of torment that he must go through, maybe late at night when you can't fall asleep and think, "I was this close".
MARIA ECHAVESTE: Well, there's no question that, I mean he himself has said it's been a very painful process. But to, I totally agree with Peter and Irene, you can not write him off. And he said I'm not going to run in this election. He's going to leave his options, he's got comment got plenty of time, he will barely be 60 in 2008.
I think this is a terrific opportunity for the Democratic Party to have an open field, to really see what the best ideas, the best messenger is to take on President Bush, because frankly I think he's vulnerable. And one thing everyone realizes, this is very much like 1991-1992. And no one is going to make the mistake of sitting out a race when someone, when the president looks invulnerable, because you never know what's going to happen two years from now.
IRENE NATIVIDAD: Two years is a long time in politics. One year is a long time. Lord knows what will happen in terms of this war. I mean, one hopes that it doesn't happen, or how it turns out. What about the war in terms of the economy? You know, the Bush folks, the strategists, his advisers are very smart. And they're leaps ahead. So I don't discount them, and they've already figured out that the economic war is where it's going to be played in terms of presidential. But how successful they will be, what will be the outcome of this war that seems to be impending, all of that will affect a discourse. And the way in which this election will be played.
RAY SUAREZ: In the way we do elections today, Peter Hart, is it late in the cycle? If you think the race has just opened up and you want to start from scratch, can you?
PETER HART: The answer is, there are going to be more than six candidates that you've just shown on the screen. That I would expect the field will expand beyond six. One of the real challenges is going to be money. But more importantly, it puts special pressure on two people. Representative Gephardt, suddenly Iowa taking second place is probably not going to be good enough. Puts pressure on Senator Kerry, where taking second place in New Hampshire probably isn't good enough.
So the dynamics start to change, and the key is in 1991 Bill Clinton got a great advantage by Cuomo, Governor Cuomo announcing that he wasn't going to run. He filled the vacuum and he was able to come out of that.
The difference was in 1988, Michael Dukakis sort of won, but didn't become as large a candidate. The challenge for the Democrats is not only to win the nomination, but to put yourself in the position to win the general election, and that's really going to be the challenge. And the field is going to be bigger, and at the same time, they're going to have to go beyond just constituencies to messages.
RAY SUAREZ: And very quickly, did a lot of money sit on the sidelines waiting to see what Al Gore's decision would be?
MARIA ECHAVESTE: Oh, I think so, absolutely. I think there are at least some rumblings that people were holding, waiting to see. A good half dozen people or more, it's not a formal poll, but people were waiting to see. So I think the next few months are going to be really interesting and exciting, and it will be fun.
RAY SUAREZ: And manpower as well, person power?
IRENE NATIVIDAD: Person power. Don't use that word. Also, because of the results of the last election, Democrats are hungry to win, and so there's a great impetus to, one, work for the party, and two, give money.
RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you all.