Democratic leaders pledge to avenge 2000 Florida loss

Contenders take jabs at president's record

December 07, 2003|By Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination returned to the most heated battleground of the 2000 campaign yesterday, stoking the embers of Florida's disputed vote-count three years ago and lashing President Bush before a huge partisan crowd.

Speaking at the state Democratic Party convention, the candidates mixed familiar criticisms of Bush's record with jabs evoking the widespread sense among party activists that Bush stole the White House with his 537-ballot victory in Florida.

"We will never forget what happened to [Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees] Al Gore and Joe Lieberman almost three years ago," said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Similarly, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark said Bush had divided the nation "by trying to take an election that I think any reasonable person would say he hadn't actually won."

Such sharp reminders of 2000's bitter battle highlighted an enthusiastic convention that provided another demonstration of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's powerful appeal to many of his party's faithful.

Dean supporters put on the most impressive show of strength among the more than 5,000 Democrats who gathered in a hotel at the edge of Disney World.

Dean said less about the 2000 recount than most of the other contenders, although in remarks after his speech he called what happened in Florida "a subversion of democracy."

Bush won the state - and the election - after the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a vote recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court. The ruling left in place Bush's 537-vote edge in the state out of nearly 6 million ballots cast, and gave him a razor-thin majority in the Electoral College.

Ralph Reed, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, said Democrats were miscalculating by looking back to the 2000 furor.

"George W. Bush won Florida; he was elected president, and I think the Democratic presidential candidates' failure to acknowledge that fact and offer a positive, optimistic vision for the future of the country is just a sign of their weakness," Reed said.

Florida Democrats tried to use the recount issue to fuel anger at Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, in his gubernatorial re-election last year, but he won in a landslide. Nonetheless, apart from Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri - who avoided the subject in his speech - the other leading Democratic candidates poked at the wounds from 2000.

Edwards and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts used the Florida backdrop to raise questions about Diebold Election Systems Inc., a company that manufactures touch-screen voting machines that are scheduled to be used in several states, including Maryland, next year.

Kerry and Edwards said the machines raise questions of potential fraud, in part because the company's chief executive officer, Walden O'Dell has been a major fund-raiser for Bush.

Lieberman, the senator from Connecticut who was at the center of the 2000 dispute as Gore's running mate, did not speak yesterday because he does not campaign on the Jewish Sabbath. But according to excerpts of his speech for today that were provided to reporters, he will also jump on the pile, arguing that Bush's tactics during the recount fight were "a sign" of polarizing tactics he said the president has used to govern.

Clark faced questions from reporters who asked why he had not spoken out during the recount - and why he praised the Bush administration during an appearance at a GOP fund-raiser in 2001. "Because I believed that this country needed to move on, just like ... Gore said" in conceding the election, Clark replied.

The convention provided the Democratic contenders one of their largest audiences so far outside of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Aside from Lieberman, two other Democratic hopefuls missed yesterday's gathering - the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was serving as host of television's Saturday Night Live, and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, who was ill. Neither plans to attend today's session.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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