- 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
- 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
- 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
- "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
- ''Don't get ahead of yourselves,'' Gore
said. ''The focus should be on 2002.''