Gore at peace with decision not to run
Says Democrats can beat Bush in 2004
RALEIGH, North Carolina (CNN) -- Former Vice President Al Gore said Monday he is "at peace" with his decision not to seek the presidency in 2004, even though he knows it almost certainly means he will never sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.
"This has been probably the most difficult decision that I've ever made," Gore said at a news conference in Raleigh, where he was appearing at a book signing.
"I believe it's the right thing for the country. I believe it's the right thing for the political party that I'm a member of, and what I hope that political party will stand for. And I think it's the right thing for me and my family."
The former vice president said he would "probably" endorse another Democrat in the 2004 race. But he said he has not made commitments to any of the potential candidates, including his 2000 running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
"Whoever emerges from this competition will be a strong candidate," Gore said, adding that he thinks the Democratic nominee will have an "excellent chance" to defeat President Bush.
"My hunch is that the country's focus on the economy will intensify between now and November of 2004," he said. "I further believe that, unfortunately, the Bush administration's economic policies have very little chance of lifting our country out of the economic problems that we're in."
Gore said he still believes he would have a "good shot" at winning in 2004. But he said he came to the conclusion that a rematch with Bush would focus too much on their disputed 2000 contest, which was ultimately decided by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Florida election procedures.
"I felt that the focus of that race would inevitably been more on the past than it should have been, when all races ought to be focused on the future," he said.
"In conversations around the country, it is completely understandable, but nevertheless a fact, that the conversations, first and foremost, tend toward the 2000 race."
Gore also conceded that some people within the Democratic Party "felt exhausted by the whole 2000 process" and didn't want to go down that road again.
"I'm sensitive to that," he said.
Democratic field open
The White House offered little reaction to Gore's decision, press secretary Ari Fleischer calling it "an internal matter" for the Democratic Party. But Fleischer did take a shot at the opposition party's future standard-bearer.
"Somebody will emerge from the Democratic field who will ultimately seek to raise taxes on the American people," he said. "But that's a decision that the Democrats will make as they select a nominee."
Gore said he had discussed his decision not to run with three likely 2004 Democratic candidates -- Lieberman, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. But he said he did not make commitments to support any of them, and he declined to speculate on who is helped most by his decision not to run.
Lieberman, Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2000, had said he would not run if Gore did. With Gore now out of the race, Lieberman said Monday he would announce by early January whether he will seek the White House.
"I am going to very seriously consider the awesome opportunity that I now have to become a candidate for president of the United States," said Lieberman, who called Gore's announcement a "total surprise."
Kerry, who had already announced formation of a presidential exploratory committee, said Gore's decision would not affect his campaign.
"It's not about me. It's not about our party, even. It's about our country and the direction we ought to be moving in," he said. "I said all along that whatever Al Gore did or did not decide to do ... was not going to affect my personal decision."
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is also campaigning for the 2004 Democratic nomination and has formed an exploratory committee. Other candidates said to be considering a bid include House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and incoming Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota,
'I'm not ready to write my political epitaph'
Gore said he made his decision Friday morning, after discussions with members of his family, who were with him in New York while he was rehearsing to host Saturday Night Live. He announced his decision Sunday in an interview on "60 Minutes."
Gore -- who represented Tennessee for eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate and then served eight years as vice president -- said he has no plans to seek elective office, including another presidential bid. But he would not categorically rule it out.
"I'm old enough now to believe in the old cliché, 'Never say never.' But it is not something that is in my mind at all," he said. Then, he joked with reporters that his decision not to run in 2004 was actually "a very clever strategy to lay the groundwork for a presidential race in 2016."
"I've had the great privilege to serve my country for 24 years in elective office," Gore said. "I mean it when I say that my heart is full with a feeling of deep gratitude for the chance that I've had to serve my country."
Gore also said he plans to remain politically active, including making a series of speeches early next year on policy issues.
"I'm not ready to write my political epitaph," he said. "Hold off on getting the chisel and granite out."
As for what he'll do in the immediate future, Gore said he would continue working as vice chairman of Metropolitan West Financial, a Los Angeles-based securities firm, and teaching college courses in Tennessee. He said he is also exploring a lot of different possibilities.
"It's exciting at the age of 54 to have the opportunity to consider a lot of new things in life," he said.
CNN correspondents John King and Dana Bash contributed to this report.