WASHINGTON (AP) _ Al Gore left the field of potential 2004 Democratic presidential candidates in a surprise move that immediately raised the stakes for a half-dozen others pondering a run for the White House.
The party's 2000 nominee made his announcement Sunday on CBS ``60 Minutes.'' Some close aides had expected him to start making calls to political and financial advisers to test the waters and then make a decision over the Christmas holidays.
While saying he still had the energy and drive to run again, Gore, 54, noted ``there are a lot of people within the Democratic Party who felt exhausted (by the 2000 race) ... who felt like, OK, `I don't want to go through that again.' And I'm frankly sensitive to that feeling.''
Many Democrats expressed surprise at the timing of the decision, which came after Gore spent several days in New York discussing his plans with family members.
Potential rivals moved quickly to praise Gore, who still has a considerable following among Democratic voters.
Gore won the presidential popular vote by a half-million votes in 2000 but conceded to Republican George Bush after a tumultuous 36-day recount in Florida and a 5-4 Supreme Court vote against him.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards promptly praised Gore as an important force in the party who was certain to contribute more to the party in future years.
Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, possibly the closest to Gore after serving as his running mate in 2000, plans to respond Monday. Associates said they don't expect Lieberman to announce his political plans that quickly, though they say it's very likely he will run for president.
After seeking the presidency or vice presidency every four years since 1988, Gore said Sunday he'll probably not have another chance to run for the White House.
And he said a rematch with President Bush ``would inevitably involve a focus on the past that would in some measure distract from the focus on the future that I think all campaigns have to be about.''
Party activists were critical of Gore for losing despite a booming economy and eight years of a Democratic administration. Gore even lost his home state of Tennessee; a victory there would have given him the White House.
Gore disappeared from public view after the 2000 election. Gradually re-entering politics over the past year, he campaigned for selected candidates this year, made trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, then spent the last month promoting a book on the family that he wrote with his wife, Tipper, and giving interviews.
A year ago, Gore accepted the job of vice chairman of Metropolitan West Financial, a Los Angeles-based financial services holding company. He has been juggling that job with his duties as college professor, speaker and author.
Gore ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and then, while a senator, was surprised to be picked as Bill Clinton's running mate in 1992.
Clinton said Sunday night: ``Al Gore was the best vice president America ever had. He would have been a fine president had history taken a different course two years ago.''
Despite the praise Sunday night, not all Democratic activists spoke kindly of Gore over the last year. Many, both nationally and in key early primary and caucus states, said they were anxious for a fresh face.
And in coming weeks, that's what they're likely to get:
_Lieberman is likely to decide in coming days to seek the White House, although he may not announce immediately in deference to Gore.
_Gephardt, who also ran in 1988, is ``very, very likely'' to run, with the decision by Gore having no effect, associates say.
_Daschle is actively considering a presidential run, but has set no deadline for a decision.
_Kerry has taken initial steps to form an exploratory committee, a preliminary to a formal candidacy.
_Edwards is expected to announce his decision on candidacy after the Christmas holidays, and associates expect him to run.
_Dean is already a declared candidate and has spent much time in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Gore's absence could lure additional Democrats into the race.
Associates have said Gore was getting more comfortable with the idea of life as a private citizen. He made an appearance on NBC's ``Saturday Night Live'' this weekend that might have been considered risky were he seeking the presidency.
In one SNL sketch that must have had a special poignancy for him, Gore visited the set of NBC's ``West Wing,'' a popular TV show about the president and his staff.
Gore sat at the desk in the mock Oval Office as if he belonged there, then told cast members to go to dinner without him because he wanted to linger a little longer in the place he nearly claimed two years ago.