Al Gore told a cheering group of young supporters Friday night that it's important to work for Democratic candidates for Congress to provide "checks and balances" on a government that has grown increasingly conservative.

Addressing about 600 people at a rally and fund-raiser, Gore said "2002 is a critical year for our country" and urged them to support candidates who will take solid positions on the economy, the environment and a wide range of social issues.

"I'm getting worried about the economy," he told the young supporters, who paid $25 each to attend the event. "I was the first one laid off last year."

The 2000 Democratic presidential nominee told the enthusiastic crowd at a downtown Washington restaurant that they should support Democrats for Congress to help "keep it in the middle."

The former vice president is moving steadily back into the political arena, holding a series of fund-raisers that started Tuesday night and will run though mid-March in Democrat-friendly spots like New York, California, southern Florida and Tennessee.

After making his post-election political debut in Tennessee at a Democratic Party fund-raiser in early February, Gore traveled to New York two weeks later and gave a speech on international policy to the Council on Foreign Relations. Associates say Gore plans to offer three more speeches spelling out his stands on the issues ranging from the environment to campaign finance, with the next possibly coming as early as mid-March.

The bearded Gore was introduced by his oldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, who said the country "needs a strong Democratic voice."

Gore made only brief comments at the rally, which collected donations intended to cover the cost of the event aimed at young supporters.

"He's rebuilding a grass-roots network," said Donna Brazile, his former campaign manager who attended the rally but has not committed to work for Gore again. "Al Gore still has the juice. He's got a lot of support."

Gore says he has not decided whether he will run for president again, but he plans to use his leadership political action committee to support Democratic candidates around the country.

He made several references to the country's current economic problems and made it clear he didn't agree with the Bush administration's approach.

"Bill Clinton and I did a good job on the economy," Gore told the crowd, who cheered their agreement. During the 2000 campaign, Gore had distanced himself from then-President Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment trial. Gore heard a lot of criticism about that distant stance from veteran Democratic strategists, who thought it was a fatal mistake for his campaign.

Gore said Friday a major focus of his political action committee — Leadership 02 — is training young people to help with Democratic campaigns across the country. He financed a training session in Nashville, Tenn., this summer for young activists.

Jonathan Fisher, a 26-year-old economist from Arlington, Va., said he attended to hear what Gore had to say and believes that Gore still has a following. Murray Getman, a 51-year-old teacher from Malta, N.Y., came because he likes Gore's message, but said he still has work to do to overcome his past — especially his long-standing partnership with Clinton.

"I voted for Clinton," Getman said. "But I didn't like what he did."

Thirty-year-old software executive Sheeraz Haji of Oakland, Calif. welcome Gore's re-emergence in politics, adding:

"The political landscape needs a prominent Democrat out there talking about the issues."