WASHINGTON – Former Vice President Al Gore is going through a full-fledged makeover, and paying particular attention to his roots.
Stung by the loss of his home state of Tennessee in the contentious 2000 presidential election, Gore is quietly meeting with small groups of Democrats to rehabilitate his image.
He plans a more public image-repair effort on Feb. 2, where he will address 2,000 people at a major Tennessee Democratic Party fund-raiser.
"In Tennessee, the task is to make himself popular again. He didn't come home when he was vice president. He inadvertently threw away his support," said Erwin Hargrove, a presidential scholar and professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
The loss of Tennessee was particularly poignant — if he had won, he would have carried enough electoral votes to take the presidency.
The meetings over the last few months are further evidence the now-bearded Gore is emerging from a self-imposed political exile since the bitterly contested 2000 election. In recent months, he's also appeared at Democratic fund-raisers in key political states such as Florida, New Hampshire and Iowa.
"He's sure got to be thinking about [running for president]. There's no other reason to be doing this stuff," said Bill Lyons, political science professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Gore, who has been teaching college courses and working with a Los Angeles-based financial services holding company, said last month that he doesn't know whether he'll seek the presidency in 2004. But sources close to Gore have said he is definitely planning a comeback.
Friends to Gore say his recent activities in Tennessee are about more than presidential politics. They say he was extremely sad about losing Tennessee and now genuinely wants to reach out to his neighbors.
During his 16 years in Congress, Gore was praised for staying in touch with Tennesseans while spending much of his childhood in Washington where his father, the late Albert Gore Sr., was a congressman and senator. Gore spent boyhood summers in rural Carthage, Tenn., and lived in Nashville as a young man.
Gore was the first presidential candidate to lose his home state since Sen. George McGovern lost South Dakota in 1972.
Gore and wife Tipper have a home in northern Virginia but also have spent a lot of time since the election on the family farm in Carthage, about 40 miles east of Nashville. While home, Gore has met with a number of state Democrats, generally in small groups.
Greg Simon, a senior Gore adviser during the presidential campaign, said the former vice president is sticking to his pledge to "mend some fences, literally and figuratively," in Tennessee.
"He's doing exactly what he said he was going to do," Simon said.
While many Tennessee Democrats are upset about the election, they don't all hold Gore personally responsible, said Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.
"The hard truth is that his national campaign staff let him down. They made a bad decision and to a great extent ignored the state," Gordon said. "Al was needed and should have been around other states, but his national campaign should have invested more in reminding Tennesseans of Al's work in the state, and they didn't do it."
Gordon said Gore is headlining the $25-a-head party fund-raiser in Nashville next month to help Democrats running for office this year, though he conceded Gore would benefit, too.
"I think he's doing it more out of loyalty but also to have a good base" should he decide to run again, Gordon said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.