Speaking before an audience of Latino business executives, Vice President Gore today offered a passionate defense of affirmative action, saying past injustices and discrimination did justify programs to lift more minorities into positions of power and affluence.

At the town hall forum of the type so popular with President Clinton, a questioner asked Gore how many Hispanics a Gore administration would appoint to high office. The Democratic front-runner said it was natural for all citizens--of all races and ethnicities--to seek out those who look like they do. But that as Americans, Gore said, we must "break loose those blinders" and "break down the barriers."

"Affirmative action is really good for our country," Gore said. "That's the strength of the United States of America," and his closing remarks were followed by a standing ovation.

Stepping away from the lectern and speech notes, Gore said that he has heard the arguments that "we've made so much progress we don't need" affirmative action any longer--"that there's no discrimination, no prejudice anymore." Then he paused, tilted his head in a pantomime of puzzlement and, said, "Hello?" That was followed by "Hola?"

Gore pointed out that wealth passes down through the generations and that past discrimination hurts minorities today. He said a young white entrepeneur might simply call up his or her parents and relatives for a loan. That is not an option, Gore said, for many young Latinos. The vice president said that the average Latino family's wealth is one-tenth of the average for white families.

Gore offered his defense of affirmative action, which has essentially been dismantled in the arenas of higher education and state contracting in California, before the annual Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meeting here.

Both Gore and the Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, have been aggressively wooing the Latino electorate, which is a growing force in important battleground states such as California, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New York.

Bush made his first major policy speech, about education, before a Latino Business Expo in Los Angeles two weeks ago. And this has been a virtual Latino Week for Gore. On Monday, he addressed the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts; on Tuesday, he launched his Ganamos con Gore or "We Win with Gore" campaign, accepting the endorsements of hundreds of Latino leaders and activists; and on Wednesday, he appeared at the Hispanic Congressional Caucus gala in Washington.

At the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meeting here today, Gore focused mostly on the importance of education for lifting people up from poverty.

He told the audience that both his mother and father, who later became a senator, were born into poor families. "My father grew up in a place called Possum Hollow, Tennessee. When he was 18, he went to work as a teacher, in a one-room schoolhouse, in a small mountain community called Booze. That was not its official name."

Gore also offered that his mother worked her way through college as a waitress, "making 25-cent tips," and that she brought her blind sister Thelma with her to college, taking notes for her and reading aloud their lessons.

Gore then attacked the proposal offered by Bush to cut off federal funding to failing schools and give parents money to pay for private schools. "I think we should strengthen and not weaken our public schools," he said.

Gore also said that "we must treat teachers like professionals," paying them more competitive salaries; that class size should be reduced to 18 children; that "we need a renewed focus on discipline, character and the right values;" and finally that "we should insist on a policy of zero tolerance toward guns in our schools."

Like Bush, who also speaks basic Spanish, Gore sprinkled his remarks with Spanish words and sentences. "In America," he said, "words like familia, communidad, opportunidad and educacion are not just palabras [words], they are the values that guide our lives."