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Gore's Jabs at Bush Punch Up Fla. Party

Convention: His speech could help restore the former vice president's standing as a leading voice among Democrats.

April 14, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORLANDO, Fla. — An animated Al Gore delivered a comprehensive indictment of President Bush's domestic record Saturday, returning to the political arena with a campaign-style speech that roused a crowd of Florida Democrats.

In his most pointed remarks since conceding the 2000 election to Bush, Gore denounced the administration's record on issues from the economy and education to the environment and the federal budget. While praising Bush's handling of the war against terrorism, Gore insisted that the issue shouldn't inhibit Democrats from delineating differences with the president on other issues.

"The time has come for us . . . to offer constructive alternatives when we believe what they're doing is wrong for America," Gore said. "And a lot of what they are doing, I believe, is wrong for America."

Gore's remarks drew an enthusiastic response from about 2,500 delegates at the state Democratic Party convention in Florida, site of the 2000 election's controversial end. He was interrupted with standing ovations several times, and afterward many convention delegates were effusive with praise.

"I thought it was the best speech he ever gave," said Dennis Tuck, a retired test pilot from Dunedin, Fla.

In all, the speech was among the most systematic critiques of Bush's performance by any prominent Democrat and could help Gore restore his eroded standing as a leading voice in the party. Many in the audience viewed it as an indication--like his recent decision to shave his beard--that Gore was ending his self-imposed exile from political debate.

"It looked like he was ready to take them all on again," said Doug Courtney, a state Democratic committee member from Palm Coast.

Underscoring the sense of a homecoming, Gore even embraced former President Clinton, applauding the economic record that many Democrats felt Gore had failed to highlight sufficiently in the 2000 presidential campaign. "I don't care what anybody says: I think Bill Clinton and I did a . . . good job," Gore said.

Veteran GOP operative Rich Galen, attending the gathering for the Florida Republican Party, said the speech was "as good as Gore can do," but questioned whether such a sharp partisan message will be attractive to most Americans at a time when Bush is so popular.

"If he takes this speech to Missouri, I'm not sure it works as well," Galen said.

The event marked the first time Gore has shared a stage with other Democrats who are considering a bid for the party's 2004 presidential nomination. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who is actively exploring a candidacy, also received a warm, though considerably less emotional, reception for his folksy, populist speech Saturday morning. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who hasn't actively explored a campaign but hasn't closed the door to it, also spoke.

The convention is scheduled to hear today from two other potential candidates: Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Gore's running mate in 2000. Lieberman, who met with Gore over breakfast Saturday morning, has said he won't run if Gore does.

Gore has given no indication whether he will seek the nomination for a rematch against Bush. But after months of Gore maintaining a resolutely low profile, Saturday's sharply worded speech was the best indication yet that he is keeping his options open.

The event had all the feel of a campaign appearance. While Edwards, for instance, merely stepped onstage after an introduction, Gore pushed through the crowd to the pounding beat of a U2 rock anthem. Many in the crowd waved signs, which Gore's advisors insisted they had not printed, declaring that Florida was "Still Gore country," and chanted "Gore in 4."

As he often did during the 2000 campaign, Gore removed his coat and spoke in shirt sleeves. On several occasions, he gently poked fun at himself--declaring at one point that he was concerned about the economic slowdown because "I was the first one laid off a year ago." And he served up the high-voltage partisan rhetoric that he has almost entirely avoided since 2000--to the consternation of some party leaders who believe Gore remained above the fray for too long.

In his speech, Gore mentioned Bush by name sparingly. But he relentlessly criticized the administration's performance on most of the key issues that divided him and Bush during their bitterly fought campaign.

"America's economy is suffering unnecessarily," Gore charged. "Important American values are being trampled. Special interests are calling the shots."

Gore accused Bush of "loosening environmental safeguards to satisfy the polluters," failing to fully fund the education reforms the administration steered through Congress last year and offering an insufficient plan to provide prescription drugs for senior citizens.

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