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Gore sounds a populist call to arms

Al Gore accepted the Democratic nomination for president, promising to capitalize on the nation’s prosperity with a sweeping list of political reforms, tax cuts and benefits targeted at the poor and the working class.

Declaring “I am not satisfied” with America’s soaring economy, Al Gore accepted the Democratic nomination for president Thursday night, promising to capitalize on the nation’s prosperity with a sweeping list of political reforms, tax cuts and benefits targeted at the poor and the working class. Drawing a sharp contrast between the Democratic and Republican tickets, Gore said: “They’re for the powerful, we’re for the people.”

“This election is not an award for past performance,” Gore said in a 55-minute address he was still revising only moments before he began speaking here at the Democratic National Convention.

“I’m not asking you to vote for me on the basis of the economy we have. Tonight, I ask for your support on the basis of the better, fairer, more prosperous America we can build together.

“Together, let’s make sure that our prosperity enriches not just the few, but all working families.”

To do that, Gore offered a series of populist-tinged policy initiatives, among them making campaign finance reform the “very first bill that [running mate] Joe Lieberman and I send to Congress,” seeking a universal prescription drug benefit for senior citizens under Medicare, extending universal health care coverage to all children by 2004 and passing a federal law against “hate crimes” against racial minorities, gays and lesbians.

Gore in the spotlight
The vice president strode slowly onto the podium at 9:50 p.m. ET, greeting his wife, Tipper, who had introduced him, with an exuberant kiss that brought a roar of cheers from the delegates.

After three minutes, 10 seconds of boisterous screams and applause, the vice president settled in to tell Americans why they should elect him president.

Gore has been under enormous pressure to figure out how to tie himself to the Clinton economy while separating himself in the public’s mind from the Clinton scandals, pressure that ratcheted up another notch in the wake of reports of another grand jury investigation into President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern. For the vice president, that made a forceful response to Republican economic arguments paramount.

Priority: the economy
In an address interrupted 77 times by applause, Gore reminded Americans about the nation’s record-setting economic figures and claimed a significant share of the credit for them.

“Instead of the biggest deficits in history, we now have the biggest surpluses ever,” he said, launching into his principal theme only minutes after taking the podium. “The highest home ownership ever. And the lowest inflation in a generation. Instead of losing jobs, we have 22 million new jobs.”

Gore paid tribute to Clinton’s achievements: “For almost eight years now, I’ve been the partner of a leader who moved us out of the valley of recession and into the longest period of prosperity in American history. I say to you tonight: Millions of Americans will live better lives for a long time to come because of the job that’s been done by President Bill Clinton.”

But, seeking to undermine Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s assertion two weeks ago at the Republicans’ convention that he and his running mate, Dick Cheney, are better qualified to capitalize on the Clinton economic boom, Gore sounded strikingly populist themes as he identified a stark “difference in this election: They’re for the powerful, and we’re for the people.”

“Big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs — sometimes you have to be willing to stand up and say no so families can have a better life,” Gore said.

The vice president insisted that the government must do more for “working families — people trying to make house payments and car payments, working overtime to save for college and do right by their kids.” Striking a balance between Clinton’s achievements and his own hopes for the future, he said, “For all of our good times, I am not satisfied.”

“How and what we do for all of you — the people who pay the taxes, bear the burdens and live the American dream — that is the standard by which we should be judged.”

In contrast to Bush’s address two weeks ago, Gore offered specific policy proposals on a long list of issues, including health care, education and Social Security. He proposed putting record budget surpluses to work by calling for tax cuts targeted at the working class, “not just to help you save for college, but to pay for health insurance or child care.”

Bush as big spender
Gore also painted Bush as irresponsibly seeking to spend all of the surplus on politically popular but economically risky appeals to voters.

For example, Gore’s call to “reform the estate tax, so people can pass on a small business or a family farm,” falls short of Bush’s proposal to eliminate it. And he promised: “I will not go along with a huge tax cut for the wealthy at the expense of everyone else and wreck our good economy in the process.”

He said he would “invest far more in our schools,” but he also promised that “I will not go along with any plan that would drain taxpayer money away from our public schools and give it to private schools in the form of vouchers.” Bush has championed such vouchers.

And drawing a line in the sand on what is perhaps the most significant issue in the 2000 presidential campaign, Gore rejected Bush’s call to invest some of the nation’s accumulated Social Security surplus in private markets. “That’s Social Security minus,” he said. “Our plan is Social Security plus.”

Instead, “we will balance the budget every year and dedicate the budget surplus first to saving Social Security.”

The Clinton dilemma
Gore said that he had been a key player in Clinton administration decisions that led to the soaring stock market, high employment levels and huge government surpluses that undergird his proposals.

But for Gore, especially after Thursday’s report of a new investigation in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, aligning himself with Clinton’s achievements also risks subordinating Gore’s own personality to his boss’s larger-than-life profile, as well as reminding voters of Clinton’s impeachment and ensuing legal troubles.

The grand jury investigation, if confirmed, would open the door to Clinton’s possible indictment on charges of perjury or obstruction of justice, all but ensuring that reminders of the president’s impeachment trial would remain on the political radar screen for weeks to come.

Gore’s staff shook off the news, which came only hours before Gore arrived on the podium here at the Staples Center. “Al Gore and Joe Lieberman are going to focus on America’s future. Republicans are obsessed with the past,” spokesman Chris Lehane said.

‘Who I truly am’
Gore sought to distance himself from that aspect of Clinton’s record Thursday night and to persuade Americans that he is more than the president’s loyal deputy, insisting, “I stand here tonight as my own man.”

Recalling his quarter-century in national office and widely acknowledged expertise in some of the most complicated issues in government, Gore said: “We’re entering a new time. We’re electing a new president. ... And and I want you to know me for who I truly am.”

Gore, who is often accused of being a wooden bureaucrat more concerned with the details of policy than with the problems of people, addressed what he called “my own imperfections” head-on. “I know that sometimes people say I’m too serious, that I talk too much substance and policy. Maybe I’ve done that tonight,” he said, to chants of “no!”

“But the presidency is more than a popularity contest. It’s a day-by-day fight for people. Sometimes, you have to choose to do what’s difficult or unpopular. Sometimes, you have to be willing to spend your popularity in order to pick the hard right over the easy wrong.

“There are big choices ahead, and our whole future is at stake. And I do have strong beliefs about it.”

Those stated beliefs recalled a Democratic populism reaching back to the days of President Harry S. Truman and of Gore’s own father, Sen. Albert Gore Sr. The vice president used the words “fight” or “fighting” 21 times in 50 minutes, setting an “us-versus-them” tone reminiscent of the little-guy advocacy of such modern-day populists as Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who campaigned for president in 1992 as the “Real Democrat” alternative to Clinton’s “New Democrat.”

“For almost 25 years now, I’ve been fighting for people. And for all that time, I’ve been listening to people — holding open meetings in the places where they live and work,” Gore said.

“And you know what? I’ve learned a lot. And if I’m your president, I’m going to keep on having open meetings all over this country. I’m going to go out to you, the people, because I want to stay in touch with your hopes, with the quiet, everyday heroism of hard-working Americans.”

The Bush campaign criticized Gore’s address as not being not so much populist as “class warfare.” “He seems to be trying to split people apart,” said Ari Fleischer, Bush’s campaign spokesman.

On to the election
The vice president ended his address and embarked on the next stage of his campaign with a call for national action reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s famous evocation of America as a “shining city on a hill”:

“But I pledge to you tonight: I will work for you every day, and I will never let you down. If we allow ourselves to believe, without reservation, that we can do what’s right and be the better for it, then the best America will be our America.

“In this City of Angels, we can summon the better angels of our nature.

“Do not rest where we are, or retreat. Do all we can to make America all it can become.”