WASHINGTON – Al Gore's stiff jokes are gone now, replaced by recount jokes. The cautious campaigner of 2000 is gone, too, replaced by a fire-breathing Bush basher.
When Gore delivered his latest-in-a-series slam at the Republicans last week, faulting Vice President Dick Cheney (search) for "sleazy and despicable" criticism of the Democrats, a White House spokesman dismissively responded: "Consider the source."
Gore used to be the vice president, and, as he likes to say, he used to be the next president of the United States.
Now, he is Al Gore, private citizen — unleashed.
Speaking with a freedom and passion less frequently seen in his own political campaigns, Gore is happily making speeches, raking in money and generally raising hell for John Kerry (search) and the Democratic Party these days. In his spare time, he's also teaching at three universities and raising money for himself through various business ventures.
In recent weeks and months, as an uncensored voice for the Democratic cause, Gore has skewered President Bush's (search) team for moral cowardice, the "lowest sort of politics imaginable," aligning itself with "digital brownshirts" who intimidate the press, and political tactics as craven as those of Richard Nixon. Just to cite a few examples.
It's red meat for loyal Democrats, to whom Gore is the embodiment of what is at stake on Nov. 2.
"There's a lot of emotion that's wrapped up in the outcome of 2000, which I think he can use constructively in 2004," says Democratic consultant Michael Feldman, a former Gore adviser.
Just ask 76-year-old Jim McNeil, a retired steelworker who turned out to hear Gore speak at the United Steelworkers of America headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh last week.
"There stands the real president," said McNeil, who then made just the sought-after segue into support for Kerry on Election Day.
Republicans, however, say Gore's passion on the campaign path has reached an unhealthy fever pitch that could do Democrats more harm than good.
GOP strategist Keith Appell likens him to "some kind of cheerleader on acid."
"Some of the things he has said have been outrageous and he says them in this high-pitched scream," Appell said. "I really don't know what to call that."
When Gore, in an interview with The New Yorker, compared Bush's faith to "the same fundamentalist impulse that we see in Saudi Arabia (search)" and elsewhere, the Bush campaign distributed a statement from GOP consultant Ralph Reed, a former leader of the Christian Coalition (search), calling the comments "reckless and irresponsible."
If Kerry's advisers have any nervousness about Gore's high-octane attacks, they're not showing it in public.
"Gore will be a tremendous asset to us in a number of targeted battleground states and we're happy to have his help," said David Morehouse, a senior Kerry adviser. As for Gore's more outspoken criticisms, Morehouse adds, "He's a former vice president who's entitled to say what he believes."
Gore isn't just stumping for Kerry. He's also campaigning for other Democratic candidates for whom the former vice president can be a huge draw.
Last Wednesday, for example, Gore and wife Tipper hosted a house party for Tennessee legislative candidates that raised a record quarter-million dollars. On Thursday, he made two stops in Pennsylvania for Kerry. On Friday, he was in Illinois, raising money for Democratic House candidate Melissa Bean.
Pollster Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (search), said Gore is "emblematic of happier days" to many Democrats.
But Kohut cautioned that "swing voters tend to be moderate, and if he comes across as too over the top, there's a risk." The pollster added, though, "Certainly he's not any more over-the-top than Dick Cheney."
Gore, who talks with Kerry frequently, had a first-day speaking role at the Democratic convention in Boston, where he toned down his rhetoric in keeping with the party's goal of projecting a positive tone from the podium.
But party activists are happy to see Gore take a harder line on the hustings. And some wonder how the 2000 election might have ended if only Gore had been similarly passionate in his denunciations of Bush then.
"He was shackled with the trappings of the office of vice president in 2000 and it's a shame, because I think it certainly held him back," says Warren Gooch, a lawyer and party fund-raiser in Gore's home state of Tennessee. "If he had been a little more forceful, a little more open and perhaps a little less cautious in 2000, it could possibly have made a difference."
Gore was warmly cheered as he took center stage in Boston. Before speaking, he paused to acknowledge the ovation, patting his hand on his heart in a reprise of the same gesture he made four years earlier, when he was accepting his party's nomination rather than merely endorsing its choice of another man.
This time, the gesture had an almost wistful element to it. And then Gore heaved a sigh and went on with his speech.