WASHINGTON -- Al Gore's decision to forgo the 2004 presidential race opens the field for lesser-known Democratic candidates and complicates President Bush's re-election strategy. The more predictable, vulnerable Gore gave way to fresher faces.
"The devil we knew is gone," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said.
Democrats applauded Gore's decision, both for its timing and political implications. The early departure frees up legions of activists and donors who would not commit to other candidates until they knew his plans.
It also ensures there will be no Bush-Gore rematch, a prospect that had worried many Democrats.
"Given his obvious ambivalence about running, he has done the party a great favor by leaving early and creating a wide-open field that will allow somebody else to emerge," said Joe Lockhart, who was White House press secretary for President Clinton.
Announcing his plans, the former vice president said Sunday night he has the energy and drive to run for president, but a rematch would have put the focus on the past and not the future.
"There are a lot of people within the Democratic Party who felt exhausted (by the 2000 race) ... who felt like, OK, 'I don't want to go through that again.' And I'm frankly sensitive to that feeling," Gore told CBS's "60 Minutes."
Many Democratic activists had voiced opposition to Gore running, citing the fumbled opportunities of the 2000 campaign when he had the advantages of incumbency and a booming economy. Gore lost the presidency to Bush after an extensive recount in Florida came up short by just over 500 votes.
A favorite of those rank-and-file Democrats who insist they were robbed two years ago, Gore would have been the party's early front-runner.
But party strategists, more pragmatic by nature than Democratic primary voters, believe Bush's performance since the Sept. 11 attacks undercut Gore's central argument in 2000 -- that Bush was not up to the job -- and made a rematch politically untenable.
"I think (Gore's decision) actually should be helpful from the standpoint that a rerun of last time -- with the dynamics now of a sitting president doing well in the polls -- would not have been the best thing for the Democratic Party," said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic strategist in California.
In nearly two dozen interviews Sunday night, Democrats said Gore has not had enough time to combat perceptions that he is unlikeable and insincere -- a politician constantly trying to reinvent himself.
"He would have been the easiest of our guys for Bush to beat," Kaufman said. "And I don't think we need to make things easy on Bush. We need people who can speak out against the president, keep him off balance."
The Democrat who stood to gain the most from Gore's decision is his former running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman. He had vowed not to challenge Gore for the nomination, and is expected to soon announce his candidacy.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who alone with Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has already jumped into the race, might be able to take advantage of the short window of time when the field is small.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who has sent strong signals that he is likely to run, was mentioned by several activists who discussed the need for a new face for the party.
Gore's departure leaves more room on the party's left for Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, a longtime ally of organized labor who is considering the race.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota is expected to announce his plans next month, but GOP victories in November's congressional elections hurt both Gephardt and Daschle.
The White House had no comment Sunday on the political implications of Gore's decision, but the president's advisers have privately said they relished another shot at their 2000 rival.
"He would have been the most predictable candidate," said Ayres, the GOP pollster. "You know exactly how to run against Gore and now it's going to be a much less predictable race for the president."
Despite disclaimers by Gore, some Democrats said they expected to see him run again -- perhaps in 2008 when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is said to be considering a race of her own. And opting out of the 2004 race may be the best way to reinvent his overly political image, they said.
"Obviously, he's not going away," said Kathleen Sullivan, former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "This gives him an opportunity to be a spokesman for the party without being accused of having ulterior motives."
Gore himself said he probably won't get another chance. "I'm not planning on some future race," he said.
Either way, Democrats said he exited smartly.
"A lot of guys don't have enough sense and class to know when it's over," Democratic consultant Jim Duffy of Washington said. "Gore realizes he had a run at it, and it didn't work out. It's over."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Ron Fournier has covered the White House and politics for The Associated Press since 1993.