Gore Takes Steps Toward 2004 Race

Al Gore is holding a retreat this weekend that could let other Democrats know whether he can raise the money he needs to makes another run at the White House.

Fund-raisers and donors will join Gore and his wife, Tipper, Friday through Sunday at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn.

``I don't think anybody's going down there expecting Al to say, 'I'm running,' but they want to hear what he thinks is going on around the country,'' said Joe Cari, a Chicago attorney and a leading Democratic fund-raiser who is headed to Memphis.

The donor retreat comes while many party activists are still debating why Gore lost the last presidential election.

``The party intelligentsia would put a one-way postage stamp on Al's head and mail him out of the country,'' Cari said. ``They are so out of touch, it's the opposite of what is going on in the rank and file.''

A strong signal from Gore's financial backers could counter the skepticism being expressed by activists in key states.

Jackie Dyke, political director for Gore's Iowa caucus campaign and a field staffer during the general election, says she is increasingly put off by Gore's lack of communication.

``I dropped him an e-mail the other day and told him we all understand about sorting your life out, but what's wrong with picking up the phone and calling someone to ask them what's going on?'' said Dyke, whose husband, John Norris, is running for Congress.

In New Hampshire, Gore has plenty of contacts and allies from the 2000 campaign, but party activists are also looking closely at the new wave of potential Democratic candidates.

``There are a lot of people who were very strong for Gore who hope he doesn't do it,'' said Jeff Woodburn, a businessman and former Democratic Party chairman in New Hampshire. ``They like the idea of being free to be courted.''

In South Carolina, the third of the early primary states, some Democrats are nursing bruised feelings about the lack of Democratic attention in 2000.

``I'm chairman of the state party and we'll welcome anyone who wants to come through here and participate in our primary process,'' said party chairman Dick Harpootlian. ``But he's going to have to actually come to South Carolina if he wants to participate in the 2004 primary.''

An additional sign that veteran Democrats are shopping around has been the independent stance taken by some of his top campaign staff from 2000:

—Campaign manager Donna Brazile is now advising the Democratic National Committee.

—Senior adviser Michael Whouley has close ties to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

—Advertising consultants Tad Devine and Bob Shrum have a long-standing relationship with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and many other veteran Democrats. Edwards is holding his own private retreat of 50 to 100 friends and supporters on St. Simons Island, Ga., this week.

Gore associates say the Memphis gathering of 50 to 75 top fund-raisers and donors will provide a chance to meet with the former vice president and talk about the elections in 2002 and beyond. They point to the warm reception he got at recent speeches in Florida in April and Wisconsin in June as a sign Democrats are receptive to Gore's return.

``As the Gore network builds, his appearances in Wisconsin and Florida have done a lot to mobilize support around Al Gore's issues and quieted down the skepticism,'' said Robert Zimmerman, a New York City businessman, a longtime supporter and a leading Gore fund-raiser.

Mitchell Berger, a top Democratic fund-raiser from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he does not expect the 2004 presidential race will be a major topic, although ``I don't think the topic will be far from anyone's mind.''