WASHINGTON -- Former Vice President Al Gore plans to endorse Howard Dean today as the Democratic candidate for president, a surprise stroke that some strategists believe -- and rival candidates fear -- could lend establishment credentials to the insurgent front-runner and cement his already substantial lead in public opinion polls.
Gore, a potent symbol of the disputed 2000 election, intends to appear with the former governor today in the Harlem neighborhood of New York and then travel to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a key destination in the campaign for the state's Jan. 19 caucuses, party officials said. Dean campaign aides declined to discuss the event, but issued a statement declaring that a "major announcement" will occur during a rally scheduled for 1 p.m. EST today.
Dean worked on securing the endorsement for more than a year, Democratic aides said, a recognition that he would need to soften his profile as a rebellious outsider if he hopes to win support from centrists in the primary and convince the party's mainstream that he can beat President Bush.
By the same measure, Gore's decision to endorse a maverick candidate once little known outside Vermont represented a remarkable setback for the more established contenders and signaled how dramatically Dean has surged in the last eight months. While Democratic insiders have talked about a movement to "stop Dean" as the only way to ensure victory, Gore's announcement could persuade skeptical voters to embrace Dean instead, his supporters said.
"It's huge," said Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager in 2000. "Al Gore has enormous stature and credibility. This endorsement will give Howard Dean a tremendous boost. It immediately allows Howard Dean to run a 50-state campaign, to raise money and help validate him with voters who don't know him yet, to bring minorities and women to the table who as yet have been undecided."
"This is a body blow to everybody," a senior aide to a rival Democrat said, saying the news stunned the Democratic field and demoralized more established candidates who assumed Gore would not campaign against them.
Democratic strategists said that the official endorsement plan had been in the works for several weeks, and that Dean and Gore have spoken frequently. Gore was especially intrigued by Dean's use of the Internet, a medium he, himself, took an active interest in advancing while vice president. Gore and Dean have close ties to the grass-roots group MoveOn.org, which held the Internet survey that gave Dean his first publicized push and also invited Gore to deliver a major foreign policy address last month.
"This is the beginning of the signal of the establishment uniting behind Dean," said Simon Rosenberg, a former Clinton strategist and head of the New Democrat Network, a group which supports moderate Democrats and which was begun with the help of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. "This is a watershed moment in the campaign. The nominee in 2000 making the decision to endorse in a nine-way race is pretty significant."
But the tactic is not without risks: Dean has soared to the top partly by eschewing traditional party politics, a claim he can now no longer make. The value of Gore's opinion remains up for debate: Some Democrats, including former advisers, are still annoyed at Gore for failure to capitalize on peace, prosperity, and incumbency to win the election in 2000.
Dean is far ahead in New Hampshire primary polls, leading his second-place rival, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, by as much as 25 points. He is in a closer fight in Iowa with Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri -- they are separated by a single-digit margin in recent polls -- and is behind in South Carolina, the next key primary state that is being closely watched as a barometer of which candidate could win important southern states.
Indeed, the tight race in places other than New Hampshire has led to an unusually fractured campaign, giving Dean's rivals incentive to do combat in states all across the map -- a strategy that may be more difficult now that Gore has lent his name-recognition to the Dean campaign.
The other Democratic contenders and their aides lashed out at Gore, accusing him of a variety of ulterior motives. A former senior adviser to Gore who now works for a rival campaign accused him of simply looking ahead to his own political career, or perhaps trying to upstage Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, who has made news in recent days.
The announcement was viewed as especially disloyal to Lieberman, who ran on the ticket with Gore in 2000 and waited to enter the current race until Gore opted out, and is now far behind in the polls. Lieberman, though, issued a mild statement with only a subtle dig at their gentlemen's agreement. "I have a lot of respect for Al Gore -- that is why I kept my promise not to run if he did," the statement said. "Ultimately, the voters will make the determination and I will continue to make my case about taking our party and nation forward." He later said, "I was surprised."
Advisers to two candidates, Kerry and retired General Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas, issued statements so hastily that they included typographical errors.
Ultimately, Kerry did sign off on a statement in his own name. "This election is about the future, not about the past," the statement read. "This election will be decided by voters, across the country, beginning with voters in Iowa."
Clark made a similar point -- but then noted that his campaign has been endorsed by more than 20 former aides to Gore, most of whom now work for the retired general in Little Rock. Accurately or not, Clark has been widely viewed as the Clintons' pick for the nomination, as a fellow Arkansan and a purported centrist whose military credentials could be a significant threat to Bush.
"We know from 2000 that in a democracy it is the popular vote that counts," said Clark press secretary Bill Buck, who was Gore's former communications director for Florida.
A spokeswoman for Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, another early favorite of former President Clinton, took a lighter approach. In an email titled, "Yeah . . . but who is getting the Barkley endorsement?" An Edwards aide, Jennifer Palmieri, noted that basketball star Charles Barkley said in an interview with Jesse Ventura on MSNBC that the North Carolina Democrat is, so far, the only one to "float my boat."
According to former staff members of Gore, Dean first approached him when he was vice president, after the 1998 midterm elections, to discuss his potential candidacy in 2000. Ultimately, only Bill Bradley challenged Gore for the 2000 nomination.
The more recent encounters have been kept a close secret, according to others close to Gore. Michael Feldman, who worked for Gore for eight years, said this was very much in keeping with the former vice president's style -- he did the same with his announcement to not seek the Democratic nomination, a move that surprised even Washington insiders.
But Feldman said, "It doesn't surprise me that Gore would think every carefully about the field and ways he could advance the debate. He said he would endorse and would endorse on the early side in a speech earlier this year."