More to the point, Thompson’s conservative credentials put to shame those of his putative rivals. Across the country, there’s a palpable sense of dismay on the right with the extant Republican menu: Giuliani is (correctly) viewed as an out-front social liberal; McCain is seen as a hypocrite, a phony, never to be trusted; and Romney is perceived as a patent flip-flopper, who has changed his views on subjects from abortion to gay rights more readily (and less convincingly) than other people change their socks. As for the genuine conservatives in the race, such as Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, even the fringiest movement voters have (ahem) questions about their viability.
The lack of enthusiasm among Republicans for the current crop of candidates is more than anecdotal. A recent CBS/New York Times poll found that nearly six in ten GOP voters were unsatisfied with the options now before them. Thus does Thompson find himself staring at an opening as wide as the Grand Canyon.
Can anything similar be said of Gore? As recently as six months ago, countless Democrats would have answered yes. With their party still in the minority before last year’s congressional elections, and with Hillary Clinton—despite her muddled position on the war and worrying electability issues—apparently on track to march to the nomination anyway, there was, in many party circles, pining for Gore redux. And, no doubt, this sentiment hasn’t fully disappeared. Gore’s Oscar victory for his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, ratified his status as the leading voice in the emerging green-politics movement. His nomination for a Nobel Prize only further enhanced his stature. His forthcoming book, The Assault on Reason, and his LiveEarth concerts this summer are sure to keep him in the headlines.
Gore, of course, has consistently maintained that his global-warming crusade is not a precursor to a presidential run. As he told me last year, “This is a different kind of campaign—politics is behind me.” Yet Gore is hardly deaf to the entreaties of his fans. He knows that occupying the White House would put him in the most powerful position to advance his cause. And, according to whispers I’ve been hearing, he increasingly believes that a green platform would be a potent one in a presidential election.
Gore, however, is also a man who understands the art of the possible—which brings us back to those first-quarter numbers and their implications. By any standard, the sums raised by the Democratic candidates were astonishing: a grand total of $78 million, more than triple the amount ginned up in a similar span of time in any previous election season. And the totals racked up by Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards were beyond the expectations of anyone sensible, say, a year ago.
What the figures reinforce is the pervasive sense that Democrats, by and large, are happy with their field—and thus no longer craving a savior. Moreover, the success of Obama strikes me as being of particular consequence for Gore. Even more than his leadership on global warming, it was Gore’s prescient opposition to the Iraq war that provided a rationale for his late entry into the race. But now the Democrats possess a plausible candidate who occupied the same early antiwar position—and one who has demonstrated a capacity to go toe-to-toe with Clinton.