Gore gets a head start on next go-round December 13, 2003 BY THOMAS ROESER Why did the former vice president do it? Regarded as a centrist by his party but far from charismatic, he served two terms with a president who broke a long string of defeats by embracing what in that party was known as a ''middle way.'' Then the vice president ran for the presidency himself and lost narrowly. Four years later, regarded as a national leader, all he needed to do was steer a neutral course between aspiring presidential candidates and bide his time for a future run. By holding off an endorsement, he would retain the good will of all -- and he was young enough to run for president once again if the party's nominee lost. But no -- he sided with the one candidate who many in his party feared was too extreme. Result: Many moderates were angry at him; a powerful New Yorker was miffed. But the former vice president had guessed right. His party was changing, moving away from the center and he -- the former vice president -- would be joining them because, shrewd analyst that he was, he knew a realignment when he saw it. Thus, when Richard Nixon, no charmer, came out in support of Sen. Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention, the crowd went wild. Goldwater lost heavily, but his campaign was a watershed. Besides winning his home state of Arizona, for the first time in a generation the GOP carried five Deep South states: Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina. Realignment was under way which, despite two exceptions, stays with us yet. And Nixon, who campaigned as hard as he could for Goldwater -- and for Republicans of all stripes in the 1966 off-year elections -- was remembered by ideologically committed Goldwaterites in 1968 when they fought for him in the primaries. The powerful miffed New Yorker, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, decided not to run. A measure of Nixon's support from the conservative grass roots came at the Miami convention when the newly elected governor of California, Ronald Reagan -- a man with greater conservative credentials and personal appeal than Nixon --failed. Nixon's decision in 1964 carried him through the 1968 convention; the conservatives grumbled but were not disenchanted when the former vice president sounded a tad ''moderate'' in the general campaign. They stayed with him to the end -- beyond 1972 -- and were the last to jump ship before his resignation. Thus, it was no surprise that analyst, former Goldwaterite, former Nixonite, former two-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan said quietly a few days ago he understood well what former Vice President Al Gore had in mind by endorsing so-called extremist Howard Dean. The Democratic liberal faithful will remember Gore, Buchanan said. If Dean loses, the party's base will be resolutely for Gore in 2008; they will remember that the miffed New Yorker, a hawk for all her carping at President Bush, Hillary Clinton, had hung back -- and in five years the senator may be defeated by Rudy Giuliani, and even if not, she will be a very faded leaf on the tree. Buchanan didn't say it, but it would be surprising if in his private moments he didn't ruminate that much of Dean's program reflects his own beliefs on foreign policy and economics: beliefs that ultimately caused Buchanan to leave the GOP for the bereft Solidarity Party. While he and Dean are poles apart on social policy, and pro-life is a central thesis of Buchanan's philosophy, he didn't leave the Republican Party because of that issue: The party's platform was solidly pro-life. He left it for two reasons: First, because he quarreled bitterly with the GOP's espousal of internationalism. Buchanan and his followers are nationalists, committed to wars only when proven to be in support of the peace and liberty of the United States. (Iraq, to Buchanan, didn't qualify, although as a patriot he dearly hopes we can find other nations to take up the defensive burden.) Second, because Buchanan is a protectionist, believing that giant multinational firms are transferring jobs to poor nations, which has undermined U.S. manufacturing, leaving it helpless to its enemies when a future confrontation may arise. These are Dean tenets. Gore's decision to endorse Dean (far earlier than Nixon's decision to back Goldwater) serves notice that no matter what happens to Dean in the general election, Gore will be a player and will be regarded by the crucially important liberal Democratic base in better stead than Hillary Clinton or any future prospect. Will Dean win the nomination? I think he will; if not, Gore will be a dead dodo, his gamble for naught. As nominee, will Dean campaign in a way that not only keeps the base but beckons other disenchanted voters to his side? My bet is that he will not, that he will fall far short, as did Goldwater in 1964. But in 2008, there will be another hungry ex-veep like the one of 40 years earlier -- and the poker game could pay off in high stakes for Al Gore.