On the courthouse square where he began seven other campaigns, Vice President Gore opened his second presidential bid today with a declaration that he is "restless" to build a more moral America where faith "lights our steps" and values are the "strongest compass for our future."
"With your help, I will take my own values of faith and family to the presidency -- to build an America that is not only better off, but better," he said. "And that is why today, I announce that I am a candidate for president of the United States."
With its numerous references to conscience, goodness and decency, Gore's speech stood in distinct contrast to the Clinton administration credo of public values over private behavior and marked the 51-year-old Democrat's formal break from President Clinton, after seven years as understudy. A Gore administration, he said, would go beyond economic successes to deeper, more spiritual rewards. "For the issue is not only our standard of living, but our standards in life," he said.
Gore made indirect references to the two men who may pose the most serious threats to his election in 2000. Without naming them, he derided Texas Gov. George W. Bush's "crumbs of compassion" and bemoaned the value "deficits" that have escalated during Clinton's tenure.
After highlighting his own service in Vietnam, Gore attacked Bush's lack of foreign policy experience: "You deserve a leader who has been tested in it -- who knows how to protect America, and secure peace and freedom." He also criticized pro-gun legislation Bush has pledged to sign: "While some want to pass new protections for gun manufacturers, to shield them from lawsuits, I will work to get guns off the streets, out of the schools and away from children and criminals."
Gore enters the 2000 contest well ahead of his only Democratic opponent, former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, but trailing Republicans Bush and Elizabeth Dole. Although today's speech included staples of Democratic orthodoxy -- abortion rights, equal pay and environmental protections -- Gore signaled he is much more focused on a general election battle for centrist voters.
He promised "revolutionary" change in schools, better health care for the elderly, tax breaks for college tuition, a strong defense and greater use of religious organizations in addressing social problems. "I am not satisfied. Indeed, I am restless. I believe we can do better," he said.
Despite the built-in advantages of running as a near incumbent, Gore has sputtered through most of the spring, trying unsuccessfully to polish his campaign style and smooth tensions within his staff. More significantly, he is still struggling to find a way to both exploit the Clinton connection (strong economy, popular policies) and distance himself from the Clinton taint.
Gore mentioned Clinton by name only twice in his speech -- in reference to the economy and Kosovo.
In recent days, Gore has had harsh words about the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal and blunt talk about personal responsibility. In interviews with Tennessee reporters, Gore for the first time acknowledged he was "upset" by Clinton's illicit affair with the former White House intern. Referring to "that awful year we went through," he said, "I felt what the president did, especially as a parent, was inexcusable."
Today, in a remark some in the crowd interpreted as a reference to Clinton, Gore said, "I say to every parent in America: It is our own lives we must master if we are to have the moral authority to guide our children."
Clinton telephoned from Geneva this morning to wish his vice president good luck; after watching Gore's speech on television, he phoned again, this time from Paris, to pass along congratulations. Gore then headed to Iowa for an education forum. Thursday he campaigns in New Hampshire.
Even with his early campaign difficulties, Gore brings to the race an impressive resume. Gore spent eight years in the House and eight in the Senate before being tapped as Clinton's running mate in 1992. Though his presidential campaign in 1988 did not last beyond the New York primary, that race helped Gore build a national network still in place today.
Gore chose the tiny west Tennessee town of Carthage for his announcement today to highlight the parts of his biography not connected to Washington. While his late father, Albert Gore Sr., served in Congress, Gore attended prep school in the nation's capital but returned to the family farm here each summer.
Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson today mocked Gore's promotion of his rural roots, riding up to the elegant Washington hotel where Gore grew up in a wagon drawn by a pair of mules. He then led reporters on a tour of the rooms that were once the Gore family residence, what he referred to as the "real Gore homestead." And several of Gore's GOP rivals derided his comments about morality. "Where was Al Gore when his partner, Bill Clinton, robbed the Oval Office of its moral leadership?" Dole chided.
This morning, Carthage was festooned in Gore banners. Said one: "Be a part of history. See future president Al Gore."
Surrounded by his mother, wife and four children, Gore strode out of the red brick courthouse along a path lined with 10 American flags. His wife Tipper Gore, stricken with laryngitis, turned the introduction duties over to eldest daughter Karenna, who is expecting the Gores' first grandchild this month.
Gore's 25-minute address to 5,000 supporters was interrupted by a small but vocal group of AIDS activists. Before they were escorted away by firefighters, their shouting briefly drowned out the candidate's voice on live TV and prompted one of Gore's rare ad libs: "I love free speech."
As the vice president described Pauline Gore's early law career at a time "when poor girls were not supposed to dream," he blew his 87-year-old mother a kiss. Then, referring to his father, he said: "His last election was lost -- but his conscience won. He taught me all my life that that was what counted."
As his speech drew to a close, Gore boomed into his microphone, "If you believe America must move forward -- if you are ready for America to choose the good once more -- then let us lead this nation together. Come with me toward America's new horizon. Here, at the center of my home town, in the heart of America, in the midst of the people I love -- that is the horizon I see."
Researcher Ben White in Washington contributed to this report.
CAPTION: At Gore's traditional jumping-off place of Carthage, Tenn., the vice president and his wife, Tipper, set sights on the November 2000 presidential election.
CAPTION: Vice President Gore reaches out to residents of his home town of Carthage, Tenn., at a courthouse rally where he announced race for the White House.