Associated PressDeclaring that "here in America, patriotism does not mean keeping quiet," former Vice President Al Gore took on President Bush today in a speech in Florida.
ORLANDO, Fla., April 13 — Declaring that "here in America, patriotism does not mean keeping quiet," former Vice President Al Gore re—emerged today at the scene of the 2000 electoral crisis, forcefully — and noisily — taking on President Bush on tax cuts, the environment and other issues.
"I'm tired of this right-wing sidewind," Mr. Gore said to the 2,500 partisans here for the Florida Democratic Convention. "I've had it. America's economy is suffering unnecessarily. Important American values are being trampled. Special interests are calling the shots."
On the environment, the economy and values, he said, "this administration is following the same pattern: selling out America's future in return for short-term political gains."
Mr. Gore even dared to do what many Democrats had said he was afraid of doing in the 2000 campaign: embrace President Bill Clinton.
"I think Bill Clinton and I did a damn good job," Mr. Gore said, practically shouting.
While Mr. Gore has spoken numerous times in the 16 months since the acrimonious 36-day standoff over the counting of votes in Florida — and offered sharp criticism of Mr. Bush at a meeting of Democrats in Tennessee, his home state, in February — his address here carried particular weight because this was the first political event he has attended with other Democrats who have designs on the White House.
It was also a crucial first test of whether Democratic loyalists here would stand behind him in a rematch with Mr. Bush in 2004. His certainly received a hero's welcome, with delegates often jumping from their feet and waving placards proclaiming, "Still Gore Country!" over an outline of the state of Florida.
While he did not declare that he was running, Mr. Gore seemed very much the candidate today. He drew some of his biggest cheers when he scolded Mr. Bush for not sharing information with Congress and the public. "America's policies should be decided in the open and not in secret back room meetings where average citizens get the door slammed in their face while polluters get the welcome mat," he said. "Let's have a little Florida sunshine."
And Mr. Gore could not resist analogies with the nearby Walt Disney World. "They're the party of Fantasy Land; we're the party of Tomorrow Land," he said. "We're the party of Main Street U.S.A.; they're the party of Pirates of Enron."
Though Mr. Gore insists he has made no decision, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chairman, who exercised with the former vice president this morning, said: "I think he will run. That's my personal opinion."
If he does run, Mr. Gore would face a knotty political situation in this state. Some Democrats showed their continued loyalty. Yet even some who proudly wore Gore stickers were not ready to sign up again with their standard-bearer from 2000. Others are embittered, blaming him for losing the White House, and say they are ready to switch loyalties.
Mr. Gore inspired mixed sentiments late Friday night when he and his wife, Tipper, strolled into the lobby of the Wyndham Palace hotel and were greeted by a clutch of wide-eyed supporters.
"I want you to vigorously pursue the nomination," said Fred Rader, 54, a delegate from Homestead, Fla.
Mr. Gore smiled and replied: "Thanks for the encouragement. I appreciate it."
Another delegate, after shaking Mr. Gore's hand, exclaimed, "Oh man, goose bumps!"
But others, like Representative Corrine Brown, a Democrat from Jacksonville, were not so enamored — or forgiving — of the candidate who won the popular vote in 2000. She said she was not sure she would back Mr. Gore again.
"It depends on him," she said. "He has to be hungry." Asserting that Mr. Gore did not aggressively battle the Republicans during the recount, Ms. Brown added: "They sent in the lions. And he let them take it away from us."
Several White House hopefuls seized on the convention this weekend to begin convincing Florida Democrats of their political appeal. They competed with one another in holding private receptions and in wooing reporters. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, for one, invited several reporters to dinner on Saturday night. Presumably not to be outdone, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Mr. Gore's running mate in 2000, invited many of those same reporters for cocktails beforehand. Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman and their wives reunited over breakfast here this morning.
Other Democrats who appeared here were Senators John Edwards of North Carolina and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.
The spectacle of so many presidential possibilities was evidence that Democrats were wasting no time in their quest to topple President Bush.
"This is the first pitch of spring training," said Senator Bob Graham of Florida. "The Yankees have gone from Tampa to the Bronx. The presidential candidates have just opened spring training in Florida."
In his speech this morning, Mr. Edwards told the delegates, "It's because of you we're going to win the White House in 2004."
Despite the parade of contenders, the politician whom everyone is watching most closely — and who has the most at stake — is Mr. Gore.
Many Democrats in recent months have accused him of squandering opportunities to take on Mr. Bush. But Mr. Gore has also been mindful that if he is too strident in criticizing the president in wartime, he risks appearing like a sore loser and, worse yet, unpatriotic.
As evidence of the touchy spot Mr. Gore finds himself in, 8 in 10 Democrats nationwide said he should say nothing critical of Mr. Bush, according to a USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll released on Friday. Forty-three percent of the Democrats said they would back another candidacy by Mr. Gore; that is down from 65 percent last August.