Former US vice president Al Gore was to endorse Howard Dean for the Democratic presidential nomination yesterday, a breakthrough that could tighten Dean's grip on the front-runner's position and usher more support from wary party elite.
Gore, who won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote in the disputed 2000 election, has agreed to appear with Dean in New York City's Harlem neighborhood and then travel with the former Vermont governor to Iowa for a formal endorsement, several Democratic officials, including one close to Gore, said on Monday.
Five weeks prior to Iowa's kickoff caucuses, the coveted endorsement is a breathtaking victory for a candidate whose anti-war, anti-establishment candidacy has given pause to party leaders and key constituencies, several Democratic strategists said.
"What this says is that all these Washington insiders who have been gnashing their teeth, wringing their hands and clinging to their cocktail cups can relax now. Dean's been knighted by the ultimate insider," Democratic consultant Dean Strother said.
"It's game, set and match. It's over," he said.
Other Democrats offered more cautious appraisals, but the consensus was that Dean's coup makes him the overwhelming favorite to claim the nomination. Even advisers to Dean's rivals conceded they were stunned and disheartened by the news.
Gore won the popular vote by half a million votes in 2000 but conceded to Republican George W. Bush after a tumultuous 36-day recount in Florida and a 5-4 Supreme Court vote against him.
The former vice president is widely popular among key primary voters due in part to the widespread belief among activists that the election was taken from him.
In several surveys of Democratic voters, Gore and New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who repeatedly say they won't seek the nomination next year, have fared better than the announced presidential candidates.
The Gore endorsement comes just weeks after two key unions -- the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- backed Dean's candidacy.
Gore's approval bolsters Dean's case that he can carry the party's mantle in November and represents more than an Internet-driven outsider relying on the support of largely white, upscale voters.
But while he leads polls in New Hampshire and Iowa, the race has not taken shape beyond the initial voting states and Gore's endorsement will not erase every concern about Dean's lack of foreign policy experience and campaign missteps.
In choosing Dean, Gore bypassed his own vice presidential pick in 2000, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is struggling in his bid to capture the nomination. Lieberman even waited until after Gore made his decision last December not to run before embarking on his candidacy.
The Lieberman campaign issued a terse statement on Monday, saying, "I was proud to have been chosen by Al Gore in 2000 to be a heartbeat away from the presidency," he said.
"Ultimately, the voters will make the determination and I will continue to make my case about taking our party and nation forward," he added.
Democratic candidate Wesley Clark issued a statement touting the number of former Gore staffers working on his campaign.