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Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 2002 / 18 Teves, 5763

Roger Simon

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Presidential candidates in search of authenticity | Politicians look to the past and analyze the present, but they live in the future. Things are so much nicer there.

All is possible in the future. Promises are kept, obligations are met, and they are free from debt ... in the future.

We also know when the future is coming in this country. Unlike democracies that have parliaments, the United States has established a pleasing rhythm to its politics. Governments do not fall here, triggering sudden national elections.

We do not lurch; we proceed. And our pattern is set: If the year is evenly divisible by four, we elect a president. If the year is not evenly divisible by four, we are getting ready to elect a president.

True, we slip in the election of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate every two years, but such elections are viewed as scorecards for the presidency.

Personalities dominate our society, and the president is almost always the biggest personality around. Which is why in December 2002, we find The New York Times already profiling the Democrat presidential aspirants for 2004.

Nor is it too early. It is never too early. The need for money and the need for publicity are so great that presidential campaigns are more or less permanent. The Democratic presidential candidates must begin running in early 2003, because the race may be locked up by early 2004.

Months and months before any human being actually casts a vote in a caucus or a primary, some candidates will be forced out of the race because they have failed to gain sufficient "traction" -- that is, they will have failed to gain the media attention, dollars and poll numbers that they need to keep their campaigns alive.

So who will run next year? As Yogi Berra once observed, "Prediction is difficult, especially about the future," but a few names can be taken as sure things:

Al Gore is out, having decided that appearing barechested on "Saturday Night Live" is a lot more fun that appearing fully dressed on "Meet the Press."

But did Gore ever intend to run for president again, or was he just trying -- and failing so far, anyway -- to get his book on the bestseller lists?

We will never know. We do know that Gore's most recent retooling of his psyche was just the latest in a line of Gore personalities: When he ran for president in 1988, he was denounced as Mean Al for his criticism of Michael Dukakis for releasing Willie Horton from prison (yes, Gore beat the Republicans to it) and for his attacks on Jesse Jackson.

Then, when Gore became vice president, he gleefully assumed the persona of Dull Al to make everyone forget about Mean Al.

For the last few months of this year, he became Funny Al, appearing with Letterman, Leno and other TV comics, delivering laugh lines with deadpan aplomb and professional timing. But associates noted a disconnect: There was new humor, but there was no new warmth. People who worked very hard for Gore in 2000 -- people who raised money for him and politicians who supported him -- simply never heard from him.

"I haven't reached out to talk to him, because my number is listed," Donna Brazile, his campaign manager in 2000, said recently. "I haven't heard from him."

So no matter what his external changes, Gore remains remarkably true to form: aloof and alone. But we would not be surprised if he ran against Hillary in 2008.

In politics, as in life, good deeds rarely go unpunished, but Joe Lieberman's good deed -- deciding not to run if Gore did -- now makes him look principled and selfless. Count him in the race along with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and New York political activist Al Sharpton.

We believe former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt will also run, and the possibles include outgoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden.

The big issue probably will be authenticity. And all the candidates are working hard on theirs right now.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate