LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Rekindling bitter memories, Democratic leaders and presidential candidates accused President Bush of stealing the 2000 election in Florida and pledged Saturday to avenge that loss next year.
"Florida is the place where America's democracy was wounded," White House hopeful John Kerry (search) told 5,000 delegates at the state party convention.
Former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek brought the activists to their feet with an angry reminder of the long-count election. "We should be ready for revenge!" she shouted as crowd members blew whistles and cheered.
The Supreme Court halted the 2000 recount of Florida ballots after five weeks, with Bush ahead of Al Gore (search) by just 537 votes out of 6 million cast. The state's 25 electoral votes put Bush in the White House.
Democratic leaders hope memories of Gore's narrow defeat inspire liberal voters to turn out in record numbers against the GOP president. Republicans say voters will reject the strategy of political vengeance.
Meeting amid the resorts and amusements of Disney World, the Democrats heard from Kerry and five other presidential candidates: front-runner Howard Dean (search), retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search) of Arkansas, Sen. John Edwards (search) of North Carolina, Reps. Dick Gephardt (search) of Missouri and Dennis Kucinich (search) of Ohio.
Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (search) cited illness for missing the event and Al Sharpton (search) skipped it to host NBC's "Saturday Night Live." Sen. Joe Lieberman (search), Gore's running mate three years ago, intended to tell the group Sunday that Bush "stretched the truth" to get his way in 2000, according to excerpts released by his campaign.
Clark, a former four-star general, told delegates he fought for democracy and free elections in Vietnam and Europe, then witnessed "the taking" of the presidency by Republicans in 2000.
Later, the retired NATO commander struggled to explain why he remained publicly silent about the recount for three years, a time frame that included a GOP fund-raising speech in which he praised Bush and his advisers.
"I wasn't a public figure" in 2000, Clark said. "I was a retired general who was writing a book." Asked why he helped raise money for a party that he believed illegitimately seized the White House, Clark said, "Because I believe that this country needed to move on, just like Vice President Gore said."
Ralph Reed, a GOP strategist who was defending Bush in hallway interviews, said the Democrats' don't-forget-the-recount strategy will fail in 2004 as it did in 2002, when Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — the president's brother — was re-elected despite McAuliffe's promise to defeat him.
"People want their leaders ... to talk about the future. They don't want anger and pessimism and personal attacks. They want a positive vision from leaders looking forward," Reed said.
As if to underscore that the recount left a bitter residue on American politics, several Democrat delegates swarmed Reed's informal news conference and chanted "No GOP!"
Speaking for a clear minority of Democrats at the convention, Gephardt suggested that the party needs to put the 2000 race behind them.
"We can't just dwell on the past. We've got to look forward," he told reporters, adding that Gore "probably won the popular vote." One delegate, standing in the back of Gephardt's news conference, whispered angrily, "There's no `probably' about it, mister."
Dean said the results will forever be in doubt because the recount was stopped. "What happened here two years ago was a perversion of democracy," he said.
His enormous organizational and fund-raising advantages were evident at the convention as Dean's campaign spent tens of thousands of dollars to ensure he had the biggest crowd.
Even so, the state's March 9 primary — not this weekend's convention — determines who wins Florida's nominating delegates.