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Monday, March 13, 2006

"Welcome back, Mr. President!": Al Gore fires up Palm Beach Crowd

John Coté

WEST PALM BEACH -- Former Vice President Al Gore returned Sunday to what one supporter called "the scene of a crime," telling a feisty, partisan crowd that the administration of President Bush poses an unprecedented test for U.S. democracy.

"I genuinely believe that American democracy faces a time of trial and challenge right now more serious than any that we have ever faced," Gore told about 400 supporters gathered at the Kravis Center for a fund raiser to boost state Democrats in the November election.

Gore cited a litany of issues, including the Bush administration's assertions of executive power, its fumbled response to Hurricane Katrina and its backing of a secret, domestic surveillance program, warrantless searches and interrogation methods used in Iraq and the war on terror.

"In every war there have been excesses ... that have come out of the extremes of combat and war," Gore said. "But never previously has it been official U.S. policy to depart from that respect that we should not torture."

Backers, still chafing from the infamous 2000 election recount in Florida that ended with Gore losing the presidency despite winning the national popular vote, roared and lauded him with standing ovations.

"Welcome back, Mr. President!" someone yelled from the crowd as Gore took the stage.

Palm Beach County, with its notorious butterfly ballot, had been a focal point of the recount. It was apparent Sunday that some local Democrats harbor bitter feelings.

"This was the scene of a crime," said West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, whose son, Marine Capt. Benjamin Lubin, has served in Afghanistan.

"We're very proud of him," Frankel said of her son. "But I can tell you, if Al Gore had been president, my son would not have been at war."

Gore cautioned against complacency in upcoming Senate, congressional, gubernatorial and other races, even as the Republican Party has been buffeted by scandal surrounding indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and internal fissures from a scuttled Bush administration proposal to allow a state-owned United Arab Emirates company to run shipping terminals in Miami and five other U.S. seaports.

"I want to give you a couple of reasons to redouble your efforts," Gore said.

"Voter fraud!" an audience member quickly offered up, to the delight of the crowd.

Gore smiled.

"I'll let others talk about that, but I like some of what I heard out here," he said.

Gore was alternately humorous, plodding, folksy and rousing for the crowd, most of whom paid between $50 and $100 to attend.

There was plenty of fight in the candidates who spoke, including gubernatorial hopeful state Sen. Rod Smith of Alachua and congressional candidates Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, who is trying to defeat U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Tim Mahoney of Palm Beach Gardens, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Jupiter. "I'm here to make sure Clay Shaw gets his Social Security entitlement, along with Katherine Harris and Tom DeLay," Klein said. "There is a change coming."

Democratic officials did not have an estimate Sunday on how much money the event raised.

Gore has been crossing the state over the past two days raising money for Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, including stops in St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach, State Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman said.

Nelson's Republican opponent is U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, the former state chief elections officer who certified the disputed 2000 presidential election results.

Harris, her Senate bid floundering amid revelations that a defense contractor who bribed a California congressman also gave her thousands in illegal campaign contributions, canceled an appearance Saturday at a Republican leadership conference in Tennessee.

Harris skipped the event to prepare "a major announcement next week" regarding her Senate campaign, she said. That further fueled speculation that she may drop out of the race.