Al Gore, responding to Democratic critics of his emphasis on economic populism, denied that he is anti-business and said fighting for the people rather than the powerful is the party's mission.

That theme is central to the political debate heading into the midterm congressional elections this fall, the former vice president said Saturday, just as it was the key to domestic issues during his failed presidential campaign against George W. Bush in 2000. 

"A major correction is needed in the course of our nation," Gore said, urging voters to send new lawmakers to Washington this fall. Democrats hold a 50-49 edge over Republicans in the Senate, with one independent, and need to pick up seven seats to take control of the 435-member House. 

Gore contended that as a result of President Bush's economic policies, "What has been put at risk is nothing less than the future of democratic capitalism." 

"Standing up for the people, not the powerful, was the right choice in 2000. In fact, it is the ground of the Democratic Party's being, our meaning and our mission," he said in a statement defending his policies. 

Leaders of a centrist Democratic group, the Democratic Leadership Council, meeting last week at a policy conference in New York, complained about Gore's economic populism theme from the 2000 campaign. They said they did not believe a theme of "the people versus the powerful" was a winning formula for Democratic candidates. 

"The suggestion from some in our party that we should no longer speak that truth, especially at a time like this, strikes me as bad politics and wrong in principle," Gore said in the statement, his first personal response to the council leaders. 

The statement was carried in Sunday editions of The New York Times under Gore's byline. 

He said a theme of his 2000 campaign had been that a Bush administration would favor special interests at the public's expense, which aides distributed Saturday. 

"Some considered this warning 'anti-business.' It was nothing of the sort," Gore said. It is often "smaller companies that play by the rules" that suffer along with the people, he said. 

The Democratic Leadership Council, which has become a kind of clearinghouse for the party's presidential candidates over the past decade, complained that Gore's stance would alienate swing voters. 

The group generally tries to blend a pro-business flavor and moderate social views with core Democratic values — a strategy it hopes will win over conservative Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans. 

Gore, who has not said if he will seek the party's nomination for the White House in 2004, did not attend the DLC meeting. Five presidential hopefuls showed up, outlining their ideas to centrist Democrats.