Rooting for Al Gore is a sentimental self-indulgence

Here's an inconvenient truth. Even with his Nobel peace prize, even with his Oscar and his Emmy, even with his undying status as the martyr of the 2000 election, Al Gore is not going to be the Democratic nominee for the White House in 2008, and is not going to be the next president of the United States either.To suppose that Nobel laureate Gore might now become these things is a fun reflex. It is seductive, understandable in its way and mostly well-meant. But it is also fantasy politics. Liberals are particularly susceptible to the fantasy, not least for the epic symmetry of Gore finally ousting George Bush. But in the end, all of this is the politics of let's pretend. Ultimately it betrays a frivolous attitude to realities - because it's just plain wrong.

First things first. Gore deserves the prize. It is a tremendous personal vindication. Ever since he read Rachel Carson as a young man, the environmental cause has shaped Gore's life. For this, like Carson, he has been regularly smeared as a dangerous subversive. George Bush Sr, running for re-election in 1992, mocked Gore as a wacky "ozone man". Rush Limbaugh continues to tell his millions of listeners that climate change is a hoax and that Gore is its snake-oil salesman. Yet even the current Bush has had to admit now that human beings are causing global warming - the very principle that the Nobel committee cited yesterday. In spite of everything they throw at him, Gore is relentlessly winning the argument.

So, yes, Gore remains a significant presence in American public life. The award of the peace prize will obviously enhance his status. But be careful not to exaggerate or misread it. "Will Gore run?" was a made-for-cable-news-TV subject yesterday, and heaven-sent for bloggers. But out there on mainstream American breakfast TV yesterday there were fewer headlines about Al Gore than about Britney Spears. A decade ago America's Jody Williams won the prize for her work campaigning against landmines. Very few Americans noticed the award, even at the time. And who remembers her now?

Gore is in every way a bigger figure than Williams, of course. Yet, out of office for eight years, even Gore is no longer really a frontline political force. His role in American life has morphed from politician to statesman. He is a man with a mission to save the planet, not a candidate for office. He is a kind of ex-president who was never actually president. He is a bit like a younger version of Jimmy Carter, the last American to win the Nobel prize. Carter is also much respected, especially now that he has no power. And he is always listened to, though never enough.

Liberals are sentimental about Carter today, but they never had much to say for him when he mattered. It seems to be the same with Gore. There was a widespread view in liberal circles on both sides of the Atlantic in early 2000 that Gore was just a bore. Followers of the Ralph Nader heresy agreed that Gore and Bush were interchangeable rich dynastic centrist politicians. It didn't matter who won. They would govern in much the same way. What was needed was a real choice. Just how wrong can you be?

Those who belittled Gore then are rooting for him now. But to build Gore up in 2008 is as self-indulgent as it was to knock him down in 2000. It is the reflex of those whose comfort zone is in opposition rather than in power. The truth is that he has a lot to lose by coming down off the moral high ground and again becoming a candidate for office. He would not be able to run a one-issue campaign. And, as he himself has admitted, he is also an erratic campaigner. Sometimes he can be brilliant, but in 2000 - urged on by Bob Shrum - his judgment was often awful. So here's another inconvenient truth. Americans know about Gore. And they know what they think about him. He does not score well in the polls, and even the Nobel award is unlikely to shift those numbers.

Inevitably there was a flurry of speculation yesterday that the award would propel Gore into the contest. A week ago supporters at took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times in an effort to summon him into the fray. Being a canny operator, of course, Gore has an interest in not closing the door entirely on this possibility. It helps keep his cause prominent, and it inflates the significance of the endorsement that he has said he will offer to one of the candidates.

But that is not the same thing as seriously weighing a run for the White House, a subject he studiously avoided in his comments in California last night. That would only happen if the Democratic party was in crisis and was calling out to Gore to save it. That is the exact opposite of the case. The Democrats are on a roll. Money is pouring in for the campaign. They expect big wins in the House and Senate next November. They are confident they will capture the White House too. And there is no sign that they are dissatisfied with the choice of candidates already on offer.

On the contrary. It is too late for Gore. With the first primaries now only weeks away, it increasingly looks as if the Democrats are coalescing around a candidate they like, whose campaign is going well, and whose name is Hillary Rodham Clinton. It is true that if Gore endorsed Barack Obama or John Edwards, as in the 2004 race he endorsed Howard Dean, he could still boost one of Clinton's opponents. But it is also true that waves of pro-Gore speculation like yesterday's serve to diminish Obama and Edwards - by implying they are not good enough - and thus to strengthen Clinton. Gore isn't a fool. He may yet endorse Clinton.

Gore's Nobel prize is a wonderful achievement. But he won't win the nomination and it is unlikely he will try. Nor should he, since Clinton is running an impressive campaign. She looks increasingly like a winner, and a deserving one. Whether someone who divides Americans, as she and Gore both do, can go on to win the presidency is another question. But Clinton knows better than anyone that she has to answer it, and she is setting out clear and serious priorities - healthcare, energy reform, rebalancing the budget and getting out of Iraq in good order. Three cheers for Al. Keep up the great work. But if it's a Democratic president you want, you're going to have to get real. Get behind Hillary.

Martin Kettle