At a private event late into a daylong fundraising swing through New York on Dec. 8 by Howard Dean, the guests' cellphones started ringing and their BlackBerrys started beeping. They were with the Democratic front-runner, it turned out, at a significant moment: AP had just broken the story that former Vice President Al Gore would be endorsing Dean.
Said one guest at the fundraiser: "Everyone just realized immediately that something huge was happening."
The Gore endorsement happens in Harlem Tuesday morning, followed by a joint trip to Iowa; it's significant as a sign of Dean's establishment support, helping him appeal to primary voters his insurgent campaign hasn't yet won over. It will also provide the Dean campaign with another huge burst of attention as his opponents seek to gain traction in the final weeks before the primaries.
"Gore was the nominee in 2000, the winner of the popular vote and one of the leading figures in the party," said Democratic consultant and former Gore advisor Michael Feldman. "I don't know too many people who could have made an endorsement in this race and had a bigger impact."
Gore's involvement in the campaign to this point had been limited to a couple of speeches denouncing the Bush administration for the war in Iraq. The speeches, it's worth noting, had been presented at forums organized by the antiwar group MoveOn.org, whose membership is largely supportive of Dean, and the speeches themselves were similar in content to what the former Vermont governor had been saying in his stump since early in the year.
It was the timing of the announcement, though, that was still a surprise. Other campaigns released statements shortly after the story broke minimizing the importance of it. "I worked with [Gore] in the Senate, and I endorsed him early in his hard fought campaign for the presidency four years ago," read one e-mailed to reporters by the John Kerry campaign. "But this election is about the future, not about the past." (The Gore announcement clearly caused some chaos on Team Kerry; the first e-mail that went out to reporters was prefaced with a note saying, "HERE ARE SOME OPTIONS. I don't think kerry should comment, unless asked at a press event? No other campaign has issued a statement.") Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., admitted to the "Today" show Tuesday morning that the announcement by his former running mate had caught him off-guard, but that he was undeterred. Lieberman had vowed not to seek the presidency if Gore decided to run again.
Gen. Wesley Clark, who was campaigning in New Hampshire at the time, pointedly told students at a rally at Harvard that the campaign shouldn't be about who raises the most money or who gets endorsements. And in an appearance immediately afterward at the Kennedy School of Government for a taping of MSNBC's "Hardball," he brushed off a question from host Chris Matthews on the significance of the endorsement. "I'll tell you what, Chris, I don't think much of endorsements," he said, pausing, "unless they're for me," which drew laughter and applause.
Meanwhile, supporters of other candidates were engaged in their own analysis of what it all means: "I think Gore probably respects Dean's message and thinks his constituency is going to be important in beating George Bush," said Robert Zimmerman, a former fundraiser and advisor for Gore who is now supporting Kerry. "And I think now that this endorsement is going to show that he's still capable of playing a major role in national politics."