Democrats Gear Up for Florida State Party Convention

Aspiring 2004 Democratic presidential candidates will flock to Florida this weekend to launch their biggest gathering since the 2000 presidential election. 

More than 2,500 Democrats are expected to meet on the 2000 election battleground to assess the potential of their presidential candidates, particularly the re-emergent former contender Al Gore, and develop strategies to defeat Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Five "wannabe" presidential candidates will speak, including former Vice President Gore, who will take the stage twice, once at a luncheon fundraiser and at the close of the morning general session.

Gore aides say he will make news by criticizing President Bush's domestic agenda.

USA Today/Gallup says eight in 10 voters think Gore should say nothing critical. Support for a Gore re-run is down from 65 percent last August to 43 percent now. Gore has been conspicuously absent over the last year and many liberals want him and the party in general to start swinging.

Though many think Gore could crush the field in fundraising if he wants, his political action committee for 2002 has not been collecting what they expected.

This is Gore's first nationally covered speech since losing the presidential election by a 537-vote margin that handed Florida to Bush. Democrats are counting on Florida's 27 electoral votes the next time around to win the 270 needed to take the White House.

"The main reason Florida is so important is because of the potential that it could play the same kind of role in future elections," said political scientist David Rohde of Michigan State University. "It has moved from a state with a decided Republican tilt to one that is dead-on the national average."

Scheduled to speak at the convention in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., that runs from Friday through Sunday are Gore; his 2000 running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut; Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina; Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts; and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut.

Lieberman will also speak twice at a Sunday brunch and at the end of the Sunday morning general session. Aides say he will call Bush's handling of the war correct but will trash the president's tax cuts and environmental record.

Lieberman will arrive in Orlando accompanied by his PAC's new consultant, ex-Clinton White House political director and 1999 Gore campaign manager Craig Smith. He will avoid most activities Saturday in honor of the Sabbath, but plans "to grab a cup of coffee" with Gore.

Edwards will get his biggest national audience ever as a candidate, though he has not enthused most crowds so far in smaller venues.

Kerry continues to inch his candidacy forward with blistering speeches against Bush's domestic policy. He led the filibuster in the Senate against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge last month.

Dodd has said recently he is considering a bid and will also speak. He spearheaded election reform prompted by the Florida recount  that passed the Senate this week and will likely be regarded favorably.

Other potential candidates will skip the big weekend. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota is celebrating his anniversary with his wife. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri will be campaigning for other candidates in Iowa, the first caucus state. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean will be in Minnesota speaking to the Humphrey Day Dinner.

The candidates' activities outside the public eye are just as telling if not more so as what they'll do and say in front of the amassed activists at the state party convention.

Kerry sent a letter on April 1 to the 2,200 delegates thanking them for the "opportunity to share some thoughts" with them.

Before addressing the convention Sunday, Kerry will huddle with a group of veterans, hold meetings with both the leadership and with rank-and-file members of the Florida Education Association, and see the state AFL-CIO and other labor leaders.

Ex-Rep. Pete Peterson, a fellow Vietnam veteran and longtime friend "has given Kerry some political guidance" for the event, sources say. 

Other Democrats are "being tight-lipped about their plans some perhaps for competitive reasons, others because they might not have the organization or the desire to more than parachute in and give their remarks."

The race for the gubernatorial nomination will also feature prominently. Former Attorney General Janet Reno has an edge in the polls over Tampa attorney Bill McBride, but it is shrinking. McBride has the fundraising advantage and has been stealing newspaper endorsements in Dade and Broward counties where Reno is supposed to be strongest. 

Establishment Democrats are increasingly worried that Reno will not be able to beat Bush. The GOP, in general believing McBride a more formidable foe, would prefer to face Reno.

This race is expected to go to the wire. The Florida primary is being held Sept. 10.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.