WASHINGTON – Al Gore joined a chorus of Democrats criticizing President Bush for not responding to the current economic downturn, saying the president is ignoring critical domestic issues in the weeks leading up to the midterm campaign.
"We've got an election five weeks from now and a lot of the most important issues don't seem to be being discussed very much,'' Gore told a crowd of several hundred at the Brookings Institution.
Gore, still considering whether to challenge Bush in 2004, said the president should not let his focus on international matters eclipse the faltering economy at home. In the last month, the former vice president gave two speeches harshly criticizing Bush for initiating a strong policy against Iraq, despite Gore's own support of a similar strategy when he was in the Clinton administration.
"America's economy is in big trouble and I'm worried our current approach is failing us,'' Gore said.
He said the president is "like a lost driver who won't stop to ask for directions.''
Democrats, whom some political observers say are grasping for a salient campaign issue, have been attacking the Bush administration on economic policy like a drum beat for weeks. They are so determined to "trash-talk" the economy, they have even set up an election "war room" dedicated to conjuring talking points and debate strategy on a full-time basis.
"President Bush has inherited a lot of things in his life, one of which was the greatest economy in a generation. He has blown the surplus, he should take responsibility for it," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said in a statement Thursday.
"The fact that Republicans are blocking a budget in the Senate, at the request of the White House, is not what's holding back our economy. It is the policies of the Bush economic team," he added.
But Republicans blame the Democratic-controlled Senate for refusing to pass a lingering economic stimulus package and failing to pass a budget.
Democrats seem to be taking their cues from polls such as a recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey that found that 63 percent of respondents do not believe the economy is getting better. However, despite strong admonishments like those conveyed by Gore on Wednesday, Democrats seem to be failing to turn poll numbers like those into anger against Republicans.
"Voters are anxious about the economy but they are much more concerned that Sept. 11 could happen again and that's dominating the issue agenda," according to Alex Castellanos, Republican strategist. "When voters look at the economy right now, they don't feel a big threat from unemployment right now."
Unemployment remains low by historic standards -- rising only a point and a half since President Bush took office. But to hear Gore's speech Wednesday, the economic sky is truly falling.
He said the country faces a crisis in financial markets, and he questioned how Bush would pay for an impending war against Iraq, homeland defense, Social Security and Medicare all at the same time. The government's financial surplus has vanished, he said, and the nation has lost a quarter of the stock market's wealth in less than two years.
Republicans insist that this kind of rhetoric will backfire against Democrats.
"Al Gore went after Republicans and the president last week, which seemed to embolden some Democrats to the point of going to Baghdad and defending Saddam Hussein and attacking the president,'' said Republican national spokesman Jim Dyke. "I hope this doesn't embolden some Democrats with similar ill-conceived and unproductive ideas.''
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said: "I guess he's trying to get back in the dialogue. I guess he's trying to find some way to become relevant for 2004. But I think he's missed the boat.''
But McAuliffe insisted Wednesday that Gore was doing Democrats, and the nation, a favor.
"Vice President Gore's remarks are going to stimulate an important debate on the economy in the midterm elections,'' he said.
Fox News' Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.