Fla. Democratic convention closes with attacks on Bush

Lieberman criticizes policy on Middle East

Kerry, Edwards, Dodd speak out

April 15, 2002|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORLANDO, Fla. -- As former Vice President Al Gore strode to the microphone to a tumultuous welcome at the Florida Democratic Party convention over the weekend, delegates across the floor began waving large signs proclaiming: "Still Gore Country."

It wasn't clear whether the placards were meant merely to remind him that Florida Democrats still believe he carried the state that the Supreme Court finally gave to Republican George W. Bush in 2000 or to encourage him to seek the presidency again in 2004.

But on Saturday, in Gore's first major political speech since losing that election and going into a long hibernation, he sounded like a man who is leaning strongly toward making another try -- this time with less of his characteristic caution, which many said cost him the presidency in 2000.

In the face of a recent Gallup Poll that showed 82 percent of fellow Democrats saying he should not criticize President Bush right now, Gore did exactly that in a slashing attack on the Bush domestic agenda that had the Florida Democrats on their feet and cheering.

After laying down a caveat that all Democrats support the president in the war on terrorism, Gore made a vigorous defense of the right and obligation of the opposition party to state its differences with Bush on domestic policy.

"Here in America," Gore said, "patriotism doesn't mean keeping quiet. It means speaking up. It means exercising our freedom of speech and debating what we believe is right and what we believe is wrong."

The former vice president then followed with an unvarnished assault on what he called the Republicans' "right-wing agenda and blatantly dishonest budget," observing that "they are wrong to imply that those who stand up to them are somehow unpatriotic. It doesn't have to be that way."

Gore was only one of five possible Democratic presidential aspirants to address the state party convention. But the other four -- Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Gore's 2000 running mate -- were reduced to bit players in the drama of the losing presidential nominee's return to the state that cost him the last election.

The only subplot of the convention as far as presidential politics was concerned was the relationship between the two members of the 2000 Democratic ticket looking to 2004. Lieberman has said that he would not seek the presidential nomination if Gore does, and there was no inkling from either man of his intentions after a private meeting between them for coffee.

Lieberman, in his speech to the convention yesterday, not only criticized the Bush administration on domestic issues, but also said its foreign policy "has muddled our moral clarity" in the Middle East by pressuring Israel in its attacks on Palestinian cities "not to do exactly what we ourselves have done to fight terrorism in Afghanistan."

Kerry also attacked Bush on the Middle East, saying that the president has been "dragged kicking and resisting [into] the task of making peace."

Edwards and Dodd echoed the Gore view that patriotism should not bar criticism of the Bush domestic agenda.

The convention heard from five other Democrats, including former Attorney General Janet Reno, who are seeking the party nomination to run against Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in the state's Sept. 10 primary. But the meeting was more a Gore coming-out party, at which speaker after speaker referred to Florida's role in the former vice president's narrow defeat for the presidency.

Gore's wife, Tipper, began the litany by introducing her husband with the reminder, "By the way, we won the popular vote," which he did, by more than 539,000 ballots nationally.

Gore then thanked Florida Democrats for nearly carrying the state, adding: "This is not about what might have been. This is about what we can accomplish together for America in the future."

Although he cast himself as a team player in 2002 and beyond, Gore's sharp attack on the Bush administration's policies on the environment, the economy and "our values here at home" convinced many among the more than 1,000 convention delegates that he should and will become a presidential candidate again for 2004.

Recalling his promise after the 2000 election "that I would continue to speak out for the American people, especially for those who need burdens lifted and barriers removed," Gore said: "I intend to keep that pledge -- today, tomorrow and for all the days to come."

He echoed a warning from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II that "we must be careful that a pretext is not made of war needs to introduce far-reaching social or political changes by a side-wind," adding in a reference to the Bush administration: "I'm tired of this right-wing side-wind. I've had it. America's economy is suffering unnecessarily. Important American values are being trampled. Special interests are calling the shots."

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