Poor Al Gore, he never could get presidential politics right. Just as the former vice president and 2000 Democratic nominee for the top job was starting to take some of the bold stands that might have inspired grassroots Democrats to consider him anew – criticizing the rush to war with Iraq, pointing an appropriate finger of blame for economic instability at Bush tax policies, and acknowledging that a single-payer national health care plan is needed – he decides NOT to run in 2004.

With his announcement Sunday that he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination, Gore essentially admitted that he could not get away with remaking himself again. The son of a senator who entertained presidential ambitions, Gore has spent a lifetime preparing for the job he has now decided not to seek. It was that process of preparation that finally caught up with him: As Gore prepared for a new run, he found that too few Democrats were all that enthusiastic about the prospect of deciding which Al Gore they would have to try and elect in 2004.

Gore’s announcement gives Democrats a chance to move beyond the reinvention of a man to the more significant task of reinventing their party. Despite his many weaknesses, Gore remained a frontrunner for the 2004 nomination in most polls, largely because of his popularity among the most loyal Democratic constituencies, especially African-Americans. Now, Democrats have an opportunity to offer voters not just a fresh face but a fresh approach.

The operative word here is “opportunity,” however, not “certainty.” That’s because Gore was not the only old Democratic warhorse threatening to take to the track once more. Former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat who made a failed bid for the party nomination in 1988, and soon-to-be former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, are still pondering 2004 runs. Indeed, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Sunday, “I think Daschle will now definitely run.”

But Voters had a chance to express confidence in Gephardt and Daschle in the 2002 House and Senate elections; and they chose not to do so – to devastating effect for the party that is now struggling to mount a credible Congressional opposition to the Bush juggernaut. This pair of Congressional leaders would do their party a big favor by following Gore out to pasture.

Two senior senators from New England, Massachusetts’ John Kerry and Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman, are clearly contending. Kerry has a few things to recommend him – a generally progressive voting record, a compelling personal story, a willingness to take on the Bush administration regarding foreign policy. Lieberman brings none of those assets to the competition, but he has stronger name recognition from his 2000 vice presidential campaign.

Despite repeated missteps that have cost him some of his luster, North Carolina Senator John Edwards still talks about running. Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and Delaware Senator Joe Biden are both still making noise about entering the contest. And Dodd can point to a sounder voting record than Kerry, Lieberman or Biden. Retired General Wesley Clark has no voting record, but he is also thinking of seeking the nomination.

Vermont Governor Howard Dean is already in the race. On Sunday, he sought to position himself as the closest thing the party has to an anti-war candidate. In Gore’s absence, he noted that he is “the only candidate who opposed the president’s request for congressional authorization of military force against Iraq and the only one advocating universal health insurance. It makes it easier for me to distinguish myself from the field.”

Dean could face some serious competition for the anti-war mantle, however. Now that Gore is out, watch for increased speculation about the prospect that Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, might enter the race. Kucinich’s strong anti-war stance is popular with the party faithful, especially in Iowa where doubts about the war are widespread among likely caucus voters. And, if Kucinich runs, he will not necessarily be the last “surprise” entry.

Because of Gore’s exit, the race for the Democratic nomination in 2004 will be a better competition, with more candidates and more opportunities for Democrats to shape a fresher and more credible opposition to George W. Bush. Thus, it may be said that Gore did more for his party by leaving the 2004 race than he could ever have done by staying in it.