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Gore opts out of 2004 presidential race

Washington, Dec. 16 (Reuters): Former US Vice-President Al Gore’s surprise announcement that he would not challenge US President George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential elections has thrown the field wide open for Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Gore was expected to explain further his decision at a news conference this afternoon, in Raleigh, North Carolina, the latest stop on his book tour.

“I think that a campaign that would be a rematch between myself and President Bush would inevitably involve a focus on the past that would, in some measure, distract from the focus on the future,” Gore said in an interview on the CBS news program 60 Minutes.

The announcement ended months of speculation over a possible political rematch between Gore and Bush, who narrowly defeated the former Tennessee senator in the 2000 presidential election.

“The last campaign was an extremely difficult one, and while I have the energy and the drive to go out there and do it again, I think that there are a lot of people within the Democratic Party who felt exhausted by that,” Gore said.

The biggest beneficiary of Gore’s decision to step aside is his former 2000 vice-presidential running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Lieberman began exploring prospects for a possible 2004 White House bid shortly after a divided Supreme Court effectively decided the 2000 race for Bush by refusing to permit Gore a recount in Florida. Lieberman had said if Gore ran again, he would step aside.

While Gore’s decision clears the way for Lieberman, it will also likely open the door to other potential candidates to jump into what will be a wide open contest.

“This helps any and all Democrats considering running because Al clearly would have been the front-runner. Polls showed that,” said a former senior adviser in the 2000 Gore-Lieberman campaign. “Now it is wide open.”

Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who stepped down as House of Representatives minority leader last month, has also raised speculation he would run.

And Gore's decision may also nudge into the race Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who has long considered a bid.

“This will put more pressure on Daschle and Gephardt,” a former Gore adviser said.

“In recent months, it has been Al taking the lead in responding to Bush’s economy, war ... Now people will be turning more to see what Daschle and Gephardt have to say.”

Daschle and Gephardt, in separate statements, saluted Gore as a trailblazer and dedicated public servant.

“Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 and I am convinced he would have been a great president,” Gephardt said.

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