WASHINGTON — The most frequently asked question that I have had to field from friends these past weeks is, who will the Democrats run against President George W. Bush in 2004? My answer is an honest one, if not a satisfactory one: “I have no idea, but there will be a Democratic candidate — and he could win.”

Many of those who are asking the question of who will oppose Bush are really thinking “Why bother?” That is rebutted quickly by a rehash of his father’s record. George H.W. Bush had a much higher favorable rating at this stage of his presidency in 1991 than George W. Bush does now, but he managed to dissipate it through the campaign and lost to a candidate who, at this stage of the 1992 campaign, was a rank outsider — little-known Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Strange things happen in U.S. politics.

The presorting period of the Democratic selection contest is in high gear. Recently Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry underwent an extensive examination on national television by a tough reporter, and did rather well. Others will follow, and they will begin to get their campaigns in gear as the new year approaches.

Fundraising teams are readying for the start of campaign 2004 on Jan. 1. Funds raised from that date will become available for federal matching funds, and there has always been an unofficial contest to see which contestant can pass the hurdle of qualifying for the matching funds first. A candidate for president is eligible for matching funds when his campaign has raised a total of $5,000 in contributions of $200 or less in 20 states. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is a decent test of broad support.

Al Gore is back. After two years of monastic seclusion, Gore and his wife Tipper have made their return to the national stage with a high-powered media blitz promoting a pair of new books they have coauthored: “Joined at the Heart” and “The Spirit of Family.”

Gore could not have asked for more exposure and better venues. He was a guest on all of the best TV shows and was interviewed by every journalist of note. It was a public relations success, bar none. As it progressed, there were reports of good crowds in the bookstores where he and Tipper appeared to sell and sign their hard covers. People in line for their books had nice things to say about Gore. It all looked good.

Then came the poll. It was taken just one week following the end of the Gores’ media blitz. The poll showed that the people know him but that they don’t seem to like him. His favorable rating was 19 percent vs. 43 percent unfavorable. Gore has been measured since 1987, and that is the worst favorable rating he has ever received.

The unfavorable opinion of Gore crossed party lines: Just less than one-third of Democrats viewed him favorably, compared with about one-fifth who viewed him unfavorably.

More ominously, just 17 percent of independent voters said they had a favorable opinion of him, compared with 36 percent who described their view as negative. We won’t report what the Republicans thought — it is too brutal.

On top of the personal measurement, more than three out of five poll respondents said they would not want him as the Democratic candidate in 2004. From Gore’s perspective, the bad news on this question was that this verdict was shared by almost 60 percent of the Democrats polled. It is not a welcome sign for the long-awaited Gore candidacy announcement.

While Gore roamed the country and its television stations, the rest of the candidates were nervously awaiting fallout from the tour. These results should be heartening to them.

Gore announced that he had not yet determined whether he would be a candidate for the presidency in 2004. That decision, he said, will be made after he spends his holidays with his family and will be announced sometime early in 2003. We await his decision.

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