Gore Breaks Silence On
Bush Administration

By Jeff Zeleny
Chicago Tribune (KRT)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Al Gore stepped out of a yearlong stretch of relative political isolation Saturday evening and delivered the first public critique of President Bush's administration, declaring to a cheering throng of Tennessee supporters, ''As this ne w election season opens, I intend to rejoin the national debate.''
The former Democratic vice president, who faded from the political landscape after conceding the controversial 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush, said he would campaign actively for Democratic candidates across the country even as he quietly continues to consider his own political future.
''Whether or not I will do so as a candidate in 2004, I don't yet know,'' Gore said, offering no hints of his political aspirations. ''No matter where my future lies, I will fight for the principles that are important to our country's future.''
For the last 13 months, Gore has avoided giving his assessment of the Bush administration's first year. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Gore saluted his former opponent as his commander in chief and pledged his full support for the war on terrorism.
But in an address at a downtown Nashville hotel Saturday, Gore criticized the Bush White House's handling of the economy. He said the president's decisions -- especially the $1.3 trillion tax cut enacted in 2001 -- have squandered the budget surplus built during the eight years of Democratic control of the White House.
''Not so long ago, our economy was very strong because we made the right decisions, decisions that reflected our values,'' Gore said. ''Whatever anyone wants to say, I believe Bill Clinton and I did a good job on the economy.''
The comments from Gore were striking because he mentioned Clinton's name, something he rarely did during the 2000 presidential campaign. Many Democratic strategists said Gore lost the election, in part, for failing to capitalize on Clinton's popularity among several voting groups.
The appearance was not only a celebration for Gore, but it also marked his most aggressive attempt at reconnecting with voters in his native state. Gore represented middle Tennessee in Congress for 16 years and had never lost an election in the state until his defeat by Bush during the 2000 election.
Losing the 11 electoral votes in Tennessee was an embarrassing blow for Gore, his friends have said. When he conceded the race he vowed to ''mend fences'' with the people of Tennessee, which was his goal Saturday evening as he spoke to nearly 1,000 Democrats at the Election Kickoff 2002 party.
''It hurt me very badly since I worked so hard on the campaign,'' said Connie Melton, a Knoxville resident who embraced Gore on Saturday evening. ''But I'm so hoping he will decide to run again in 2004. He is the best Democrat we have.''
Gore has spent considerable time driving across his home state to meet supporters and develop new ones. The efforts did not pass without notice, as the crowd enthusiastically welcomed the former vice president and his wife, Tipper.
''Let's re-elect Gore in 2004!'' cheered Stella Parton, younger sister of entertainer Dolly Parton, who roused the crowd with back-to-back renditions of ''Rocky Top'' and ''The Tennessee Waltz.''
As Gore was mingling with Democrats in Tennessee, other potential presidential hopefuls were testing the political waters elsewhere. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., spent the weekend trying to woo supporters in New Hampshire, site of the first Democratic primary election, in January 2004. Nearly a half- dozen other members of Congress also are considering running in 2004.
''Gore has one thing going for him,'' said John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. ''He's been able to raise money, and he's won more votes than any other candidate ever for the presidency. That's got to be frustrating for him.''
On Saturday evening, Gore demonstrated no signs of frustration over his political past. Explaining his yearlong absence from the political limelight, he said he ''thought it was appropriate given the nature of the election'' to withdraw from policy debates.
But in the next breath, Gore took aim at the Bush administration's stance on energy, the environment and the economy.
"While we are united on the war effort, we all know there are other choices where there are differences between the parties -- real differences,'' he said. ''Once again, it is time for the American people to look at the condition of our country and make d ecisions about which course we will take.''
Gore called the Bush proposal to increase the domestic energy supply by drilling for oil in Alaska wildlife refuges an ''unfolding catastrophe.'' He also criticized Republicans for failing to uphold environmental protections created during the Clinton administration.
The 20-minute speech was interrupted several times by applause from Democrats hungry for a leader to point out differences with the GOP leadership.
Basking in the applause, Gore saved his final criticism for Republican resistance to campaign finance reform. While not specifically mentioning the burgeoning investigation into the financial collapse of Enron Corp., he said ''recent events have made it clear that this reform is needed more than ever.''
''If you care about these issues,'' Gore said, ''if you care about the economy, if you believe as I do about passing campaign finance reform, if you care about the environment. ''
But the former presidential candidate also left supporters with a message for the mid-term congressional election fight.
''Don't get ahead of yourselves,'' Gore said. ''The focus should be on 2002.''

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