When Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean in December, he didn’t just inject himself in a primary, he turned himself into a story line. According to various talking heads, Gore’s endorsement was a continuation of both his war with Bill Clinton and a larger war for the Democratic Party. So when news leaked this week that Clinton might be quietly helping Wesley Clark in his campaign for president, all the pieces seemed in place to fulfill the narrative—old left versus new center, populist Al Gore versus pragmatic Bill Clinton.
Not so fast. Mark Benoit, New York State director of the Clark campaign, concedes that a Clinton endorsement would “blow the roof off.” But according to Benoit, Clinton is still neutral. “I will say that there is an affinity and a warmth” between Clark and Clinton, says Benoit. “But I don’t see [an endorsement] happening. I have seen no evidence of fundraising help. I don’t even know where that talk comes from.”
Clinton is reported to have once called Clark one of the Democratic Party’s two stars—the other was his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, who’s widely thought to have an eye on a presidential bid of her own in 2008. (Neither Bill nor Hillary responded to a request for comment.)
The latest talk of machinations by Bill for Wesley were reported in the New York Post last week, then picked up by broadcast media. “Bill is said to be personally involved and it’s believed he’s begun making money calls on Clark’s behalf,” the paper quoted an anonymous, well-connected Democratic activist in New York as saying.
But what has given the story legs is Gore’s endorsement of Dean, and the potential juice and headlines that would come from the extension of a Gore-Clinton feud. But in presidential primaries, the party’s big guns rarely inject themselves into the infighting that characterizes most races, preferring to hold their words—and their clout—until a winner has been picked.
“Gore’s decision to endorse Dean very early in the process was viewed as unusual,” says Costas Panagopoulos, executive director of the political campaign management program at NYU. “But the fact is that there are no rules in politics—we break them as quickly as we make them up. I think it was a strategic decision because the leading contenders are within a few percentage points of each other. Anything can make a huge difference.”
But despite reports of a feud between Clinton and Gore, a counterattack by Clinton is unlikely, says Panagopoulos. “My expectation is that the Clintons, both Bill and Hillary, will play sort of a behind-the-scene role in this presidential campaign,” he says. “I think they will make the obligatory appearances and they will show support for the nominee, but my expectation is that they will be less visible than one may expect.”