For the second day in a row, AIDS activists disrupted Vice President Gore's presidential campaign tour today, protesting his behind-the-scenes role in a trade dispute over the cost of drugs in South Africa.
At two campaign stops today and one yesterday, Gore raised his voice and fired back at demonstrators as they chanted "Gore's greed kills." In one brief but tense exchange in New Hampshire, the protesters stood yelling just a few feet from Gore before being escorted out by police.
Health and AIDS activists accuse Gore of favoring drugmakers' profits over the lives of millions of South Africans infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. They say Gore, in talks with South African President Thabo Mbeki, has threatened trade sanctions if South Africa permits the widespread sale of cheaper, generic drugs that would cut into U.S. companies' sales.
"Vice President Al Gore is doing drug company dirty work," the group AIDS Drugs for Africa says in fliers distributed at Gore's appearances.
Small clutches of demonstrators first appeared Wednesday at Gore's announcement of his candidacy in Carthage, Tenn. Gore responded with a quick phrase about free speech. But today he was prepared with a full-throated response.
"I love this country. I love the First Amendment," Gore boomed in response to fewer than a dozen protesters here. "Let's give a hand to those who are exercising their First Amendment rights." As the audience clapped in approval, Gore's voice grew louder: "Let's give them a hand. Let's give them another hand. Make it louder." New York police removed the demonstrators, as Gore continued: "Now I'd like to have my say."
At the heart of the dispute is a South African law designed to give AIDS patients access to cheaper drugs. U.S. pharmaceutical companies see the law -- which allows South Africa's health minister to bring in less expensive imported AIDS drugs or locally produced generics -- as an infringement on their patent protections. They have pushed aggressively for help in Congress and at the White House, even proposing that foreign aid to South Africa be cut off.
One senior Gore adviser acknowledged the vice president is in a delicate position, balancing the magnitude of the AIDS crisis in South Africa and the needs of U.S. companies. "Obviously the vice president's got to stick up for the commercial interests of U.S. companies," the adviser said. But, he said, Gore realizes the disease "is a major threat to the welfare and even the future stability" of South Africa."
Gore has long had good relations with gay rights groups, an important Democratic Party constituency, and the South Africa issue does not appear to be endangering that relationship. David Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, one of the largest gay rights lobbying groups, described the patent matter as a "complicated issue" with "no easy solutions" and added, "To single out the vice president is not fair."
However, AIDS activist Eric Sawyer told the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS last week that it should help change a "misguided government policy" designed "simply to protect the excessive profits of drug companies." Two of the main companies producing the drugs -- Bristol-Myers Squibb and Glaxo Wellcome -- have given the bulk of their corporate contributions to the Republican Party in recent years.
Gore met with Mbeki, who was then deputy president, last August and again in February as part of regular bilateral talks. A State Department report released earlier this year called the patent dispute "a central focus" of the August talks, part of "an assiduous, concerted campaign" by top U.S. officials to persuade South Africa to change the law. South Africa denies the law would violate international patent rules.
An estimated 6 million South Africans are infected with HIV, compared with about 1 million in the United States. Many patients in this country use a "cocktail" of three AIDS drugs often costing more than $1,000 a month. South African patients may buy the cocktail for about $800 a month, but the new law -- which has yet to take effect because of a court challenge -- would pave the way for far lower prices.
During a speech at Hesser College in Manchester, N.H., this morning, Gore turned the protest into an opportunity to talk about AIDS awareness.
"Let me say in response to those who may have chosen an inappropriate way to make their point, that actually the crisis of AIDS in Africa is one that should command the attention of people in the United States and around the world," he said. "This epidemic was ignored for too long in the United States of America and I'm proud our nation is taking the lead to try to do something about it."
His wife, Tipper, snapped photos as the four demonstrators were led out.
Gore is in the middle of a four-day, cross-country announcement swing aimed at pumping some fresh energy into a campaign that has sputtered throughout the spring. As his plane headed to New York today, he said a Senate run by Hillary Rodham Clinton "will generate enthusiasm there and around the country."
The new stump speech, which he has dutifully repeated at every stop, makes clear Gore is ready to begin the shift away from President Clinton on moral issues while still hoping to share in the glories of the administration's policy achievements.
As he told reporters on Air Force Two today: "It's a new day because as a candidate for president, I am obviously presenting my own vision for the country's future."