As the race for the Democratic nomination enters the summer, there are two figures lurking in the background: Al Gore and Elizabeth Edwards. Gore, of course, is the man many wish would run but who probably won't. Edwards is arguably the biggest spousal asset in presidential politics since Eleanor Roosevelt. (We'll leave a certain Clinton out of the equation because he falls into another category altogether.) Undoubtedly, both of these specters will affect the outcome of the Democratic contest — though perhaps not in the ways their supporters anticipate.
If you're a true liberal, you're for Edwards — only the first name is Elizabeth, not John. Any rational Hardball viewer who saw her confront hate-spewing 21st-century Father Coughlin–figure Ann Coulter this past week had to have been impressed. By comparison, even Chris Matthews looked bad for his failure to speak truth to bigotry. That TV tiff followed Edwards's San Francisco appearance where, conspicuously unlike her husband, she spoke out in favor of gay marriage.
I've heard a number of voters say that, of the Edwards couple, they prefer her to him. Elizabeth Edwards's struggle with cancer has already made her part of the biggest Campaign 2008 story to transcend the political pages. And her sharp intelligence and authentic caring personality embodies the kind of modern empathetic woman of accomplishment that people wish Hillary was.
Just because Elizabeth Edwards often overshadows her husband, however, doesn't mean she isn't helping him enormously. If nothing else, a candidate's choice of a spouse is a kind of character test — one that John Edwards passes with flying colors. (Interestingly, it's a bellwether that the GOP frontrunners, save Mitt Romney, seem to have had trouble with — something that social conservatives rarely mention.)
But we are in uncharted waters. It's hard to recall an instance in post-feminist political history where an outspoken spouse was more revered by the public than was her husband. That's an untried positive dimension that certainly alters the Edwards campaign's dynamic. And, it could give Elizabeth a card to play, should her husband's efforts ultimately falter.
As for Gore, the results of a recent WHDH/Suffolk University survey have reminded everyone of his latent political strength. If Gore were to enter the race, the poll showed, he would shoot into first place in the New Hampshire primary, passing Hillary, who otherwise has a huge lead there.
Will that convince Gore to get in? Most Gore watchers think not. Now that he's become a sort of international hero, Gore understands that a potential candidate is more popular than a real one. And he seems happier now than when he was mired in conventional politics.
Still, the former vice-president wields enormous clout. If he doesn't run, he's expected to endorse one of the current candidates. He has a following, and his seal of approval could well make the difference with voters in a tightly fought contest. Those privy to his relationship with the Clintons seem sure he won't pick Hillary. That leaves Edwards or Obama.
Gore would probably be comfortable with either. But given the chance to be a part of the historical moment of nominating the first black major-party presidential contender, the guess here is that he would endorse Obama.
And Elizabeth Edwards?