Why did Al Gore endorse Howard Dean?

It was a shrewd political move calculated to position him for another run for the presidency in 2008.

Right now, Hillary Clinton is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla-ess in the Democratic Party.

When her name is added to presidential preference surveys, she blows away the competition.

If Gore is to have a shot at another run for president, he needs to position himself as the heir apparent in 2008. He just did that with the endorsement of Howard Dean.

Here’s the way it works: Win or lose – and he will lose – Howard Dean will be the head of the Democratic Party upon acceptance of the nomination this summer. With that acceptance comes the party apparatus – in addition to the base of support Dean has built in his campaign so far.

Gore’s endorsement of Dean likely comes with an agreement that the nominee will throw his support behind Gore in 2008. Thus, Gore would have something even Hillary Clinton doesn’t have for her likely race – the loyalty and support of the head of the party and all that brings with it.

It’s a bold move for a politician not known for making bold moves. He may have outmaneuvered “the smartest woman in the world” and his old mentor, Bill Clinton.

To do so, he was forced to betray Joe Lieberman, his own running mate, who has been unable to establish any traction as a candidate in 2004. But that’s politics.

The endorsement of Dean wasn’t the only political move Gore made this week. He also weighed in on the heated San Francisco mayor’s race, indicating again Gore is not through with politics.

Gore, whose presidential ambitions suffered when a Green Party candidate siphoned liberal votes, endorsed Gavin Newsom, a city supervisor fighting his way through a stiffer-than-expected run-off against Green Party contender Matt Gonzalez.

Politicians make endorsements for one reason – they expect a quid pro quo. If Al Gore is going to teach, make speeches, run a cable TV company and write books, he doesn’t need to get involved in the messy business of political endorsements. The fact that he is doing so strongly suggests he has plans for the future.

Gore altered the political balance in his party with his endorsement of Dean, but he also established his own heavyweight credentials as a major player in the party post-2004. His endorsement of a surging front-runner may have sewn up the nomination for Dean, who has had trouble getting the backing of the Democratic Party establishment.

The timing of Gore’s move is also important: It comes just hours before the nine Democratic candidates meet for a debate in New Hampshire, less than six weeks before the first votes are cast – and at a moment when the former Vermont governor is seeking to consolidate his early support and bathe his candidacy in an aura of inevitability.

After lending his endorsement to Dean, Gore traveled with the candidate to Iowa where caucuses are scheduled for Jan. 19. Dean has been running neck and neck with Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., in recent Iowa polls. The Gore endorsement could make all the difference. Political observers believe if Dean wins Iowa and New Hampshire – where he is leading handily – the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination is all but over.

Dean has become the Democratic front-runner by building a powerful grass-roots campaign based on strong opposition to the Iraqi war and strident criticism of Washington-based Democratic candidates who voted to authorize it. In addition to making himself competitive with Gephardt in Iowa, according to three recent polls, Dean has opened up a huge lead over the field in New Hampshire, where the first presidential primary will be held Jan. 27.

While Hillary Clinton has been saying the U.S. must stick it out in Iraq, Gore and Dean have offered blistering criticism of the war effort.

Al Gore is running for president in 2008. And he’s running against Hillary Clinton.

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