WASHINGTON, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- We're not going to have Al Gore to kick around anymore.
The rumors he would not make the race began to circulate on an otherwise unremarkable Sunday afternoon.
By nightfall it was official: The man who won the popular vote for president in 2000 by more than half a million votes yet lost the White House would not be running in 2004.
To the political junkies awaiting a rematch between George W. Bush and Gore, the news was disappointing if not outright surprising. They should have seen it as proof that Gore can finally decipher the handwriting on the wall, now faded because it has been there so long.
Gen. George S. Patton had it right when he said, "Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser." To Americans, a sore loser is even worse, and Gore is a sore loser.
Even as he faced the press in Raleigh, N.C., taking questions about his decision to stay out of the race, he was cracking wise about the narrowness of the result in Florida in 2000. The argument is old and tired, and the country has moved on.
Though he got off to a rocky start because of the debate over who won Florida, the vast majority of American now accept Bush as a legitimate president rather than an accidental one.
His job approval numbers underscore his support. GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway of the polling company says that survey respondents say Bush "is like me" with increasing frequency.
The visible growth in his carriage and confidence in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, helped Bush assert his presidential qualities in a major way, helping to remove lingering doubts in the minds of many Americans that the wrong man may have gained the White House in 2000. The GOP's strong showing in the November 2002 elections sealed the deal and gave Bush the mandate he could not claim in 2000.
Between November 2000 and November 2002, there were more than a few pundits, partisans and online net rangers who tried to keep the idea that Gore was the real winner of the White House in 2000 alive -- hopefully giving him a leg up in a 2004 rematch over other Democrats and over Bush.
They wanted Gore to win the 2000 election or, more accurately, did not wanted Bush to win. This led them into efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the Bush presidency, saying repeatedly that Gore won the election but lost the White House because of Republican legal and political machinations.
In the end, their campaign likely did Gore more harm than good. In December 2002, the bipartisan Hotline Bullseye Poll queried 300 Democrats likely to participate in the 2004 party nominating process in each of three key states: New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.
The findings are significant because participants in the presidential nominating process tend to be much more partisan and activist, therefore much more likely to believe Gore had the election stolen from him -- but the data suggest they no longer buy that assertion.
Close to 33 percent of Democratic voters in each state believe Bush is doing an excellent or good job as president. And 30 percent of the New Hampshire Democrats think Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has the best chance of beating Bush in 2004 compared to the 26 percent who say it's Gore.
In South Carolina, where Gore has a regional advantage because he is, to Southerners, a Southerner, the number rises to 49 percent. In Iowa, it's 40 percent.
Under the assumption that Gore would run, only 19 percent of the New Hampshire Democrats said they would "definitely vote for him" in the primary. In South Carolina it's 41 percent and in Iowa it's 32 percent in Iowa -- in each case hardly a ringing endorsement from party activists for a man who had the election stolen from him.
It was not helpful to Gore to learn that 31 percent of New Hampshire Democrats who intend to participate in the primary say they would vote for Bush over Gore in the general election. In South Carolina it's 17 percent and in Iowa 23 percent of primary Democrats say they would vote for Bush in the general election.
All that is, however, prelude, to the really shocking numbers.
If a third-party candidate got into the race -- if 2004 were a Bush-Gore rematch -- he would get the support of 38 percent of these Democrats in New Hampshire, 24 percent in South Carolina and 34 percent in Iowa.
Asked if Gore would win in a man-on-man rematch with Bush, 44 percent of these Democrats in New Hampshire, 23 percent in South Carolina and 32 percent in Iowa said they thought Gore would lose. In other words, a significant percentage of them don't think Gore can beat Bush, and they are not sure they would support him if he tried.
Gore's decision to leave the race is the single biggest indication that he finally realizes the 2000 election is over. This is a hard reality for a man who, from the time he was a small boy growing up in Washington's Fairfax Hotel, was groomed for the White House.
(The Peter Principles is a regular column on politics, culture and the media by Peter Roff, UPI political analyst and a 20-year veteran of the Washington scene.)