Democrats take gloves off to throw jabs at Bush

April 17, 2002|By Jules Witcover

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Al Gore and the other potential Democratic presidential candidates for 2004 who peddled their wares at the Florida party's convention here last weekend demonstrated unity on one point: While they support President Bush on the war on terrorism, they are not going to be inhibited in criticizing him on other matters, domestic or foreign.

The former vice president set down the marker in a particularly aggressive and vigorous defense of the right of Democrats to go after Mr. Bush on issues other than the war in which they disagree with him.

His charge that the Republicans "are wrong to vilify honorable men and women who oppose their right-wing domestic agenda and blatantly dishonest budget" served notice that Mr. Bush will get no free ride because of the war. The other Democrats here quickly joined in.

Their assault came against a background of continuing resentment among Florida Democrats over what they consider the stolen presidential election in 2000. It colored much of the rhetoric, joking and serious, heard over the weekend.

Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe kicked off the argument that the war on terrorism could not justifiably curb partisan politics in a congressional election year, tying it in with the Florida fiasco.

He referred to the Florida secretary of state, whose maneuverings led to Mr. Bush's winning the state, and her Republican candidacy for Congress when he asked, "Does anyone really believe that electing Katherine Harris to Congress is going to help root terrorists out of their caves in Tora Bora?"

Another Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, wisecracked that if "Katherine Harris ever leaves politics, she will make one hell of a fine Arthur Andersen auditor."

But such gibes did not disguise the determination of Mr. Gore, Mr. Kerry and the other Democratic speakers from the Senate -- Joe Lieberman and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina -- not to let the war on terrorism silence them on their differences with Mr. Bush on other issues.

They did not limit themselves, either, to the customary Democratic attacks on the Bush tax cuts, budget deficits and other familiar gripes.

On the Middle East crisis, Mr. Kerry castigated the president for declining for 14 months to take on "the task of making peace" in the region before finally dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region.

Mr. Lieberman, one of the Senate's staunchest defenders of Israel, said the Bush administration was wrong to pressure Israel to desist in fighting terror in the disputed Palestinian territories while itself legitimately fighting it in Afghanistan.

The most forceful words against Mr. Bush, however, came from Mr. Gore. His gloves-off style and pointed reminders of the economic well-being of the Clinton-Gore years elicited repeated comments from delegates that he would be president today if he had showed the same fire in 2000.

At one point, he drew a standing ovation in observing: "We put America's financial house back in order. I don't care what anybody says, I think Bill Clinton and I did a damn good job."

Mr. Gore has been widely criticized within the party as having thrown away the 2000 election by being too cautious and poll-driven. In the speech here, however, he bucked a recent Gallup Poll that found 82 percent of Democrats surveyed saying he should not criticize Mr. Bush.

That relative abandon, sources close to him say, reflects a new determination by Mr. Gore, as he explores the possibility of running again, to be more outspokenly assertive than he was in 2000 as a vice president.

Taking on a wartime president riding high in the polls is a political risk. But Mr. Gore and the other White House prospects, looking down the road, clearly are willing to take it as a means of rallying party support for what now at least seems a long-shot effort to beat Mr. Bush in 2004.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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