WASHINGTON -- Former Vice President Al Gore, who came agonizingly close to winning the presidency two years ago, said Sunday he will not run in 2004, and probably will not have another opportunity to seek the White House.
"I don't think it's the right thing for me to do," Gore said. He said a rematch with President Bush "would inevitably involve a focus on the past that would in some measure distract from the focus on the future that I think all campaigns have to be about."
Gore won the popular vote by half a million votes in 2000 but conceded to Republican Bush after a tumultuous 36-day recount in Florida and a 5-4 Supreme Court vote against him. Gore's concession came Dec. 13, 2000, just over two years ago.
While saying he still had the energy and drive to run again, Gore told CBS' "60 Minutes" that "there are a lot of people within the Democratic Party who felt exhausted ... who felt like, OK, 'I don't want to go through that again.' And I'm frankly sensitive to that feeling."
Gore said he thought he could beat Bush in a rematch, but then added it was unrealistic to say what would happen two years from now.
Gore said he expected his former running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, will run now that he has taken himself out of the race. Lieberman aide Adam Kovacevich said the senator was consulting with his family and would respond today to Gore's decision. Another associate said Lieberman will not announce his plans today, though the likelihood of him running is high.
Among other Democrats, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean already is running, and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has taken a first step by forming an exploratory committee.
Also considering the race are Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Those close to Gephardt have said he was "very, very likely to run" no matter what Gore decided.
Another run unlikely
Gore said he thought the economy would be the primary issue in the 2004 race, noting that Bush's father had a soaring approval rating in the polls but then stumbled and lost in 1992 because of the sour economy.
Gore said he was making his decision "in the full awareness that it probably means that I will never have another opportunity to run for president." He likely would have been the party's early front-runner and his sudden withdrawal clears the field for other Democrats hoping to unseat a popular president.
Bush, whose approval rates are in the 60s, had almost a 20-point lead over Gore in polls that pose a 2000 rematch, with an even bigger lead over other Democrats. Gore and Bush were running even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Party activists were critical of Gore for losing despite a booming economy and eight years of a Democratic administration. Gore even lost his home state of Tennessee; a victory there would have given him the White House.
Kerry, who was seen as a leading rival if Gore had run, said in a statement: "We all owe Al enormous gratitude for years of dedicated and exemplary public service and for his significant contributions to our party and country."
Dean, who was in New Hampshire, called the announcement: "sort of a bittersweet day."
"I think that Al Gore must have faced a very difficult decision and he exhibited some real courage in making the decision he did," Dean said.
After gradually re-entering politics over the past year, Gore campaigned for selected candidates this year, made trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, then spent the last month promoting a book on the family that he wrote with wife, Tipper.
The 54-year-old Gore also has been making an extensive round of media appearances, including "Saturday Night Live" over the weekend.
A year ago, Gore accepted the job of vice chairman of Metropolitan West Financial, a Los Angeles-based financial services holding company. He has been juggling that job with his duties as college professor, guest speaker and author.
Gore disappeared from public view for almost a year after the 2000 election, saying Bush deserved a chance to begin his presidency without continued criticism from his election opponent. Just as Gore was beginning to re-emerge politically, the Sept. 11 attacks altered the political climate.