Prominent Florida Democrats chided Al Gore (search) for sharply criticizing a fellow Democrat running for a U.S. Senate seat, with one politician accusing the former vice president of "slash-and-burn politics."

Retiring Sen. Bob Graham (search) and Sen. Bill Nelson (search) both defended Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas (search) on Monday, a day after Gore said he had been "treacherous and dishonest" during the 2000 election.

"This slash-and-burn politics has gotten us to the point that it is causing gridlock in America," Nelson said. "I am pretty disappointed that Al Gore would say that about my friend, Alex Penelas."

Several Democrats spoke on Penelas' behalf after Gore issued a statement to The Miami Herald that was published Sunday. Gore praised one of Penelas' two main rivals, Rep. Peter Deutsch, calling him "a standup leader for our party in difficult times such as the 2000 election recount in Florida."

The statement added: "One of the other candidates in this race became in 2000 the single most treacherous and dishonest person I dealt with during the campaign anywhere in America." A Gore aide confirmed he was not referring to the third candidate, Betty Castor, who has led in polls taken this spring.

The primary for the Democratic nomination to replace Graham is Aug. 31.

Penelas is the source of simmering anger among some Democrats, who claim he succumbed to pressure from Cuban-Americans and Republicans not to actively support Gore during the final months of the 2000 election.

President Bush won the White House after winning Florida by 537 votes following a 36-day recount in some counties — including Miami-Dade — that was stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many Cuban-Americans, who make up the largest voting bloc in the county, had vowed to punish Gore for the Clinton administration's handling of the Elian Gonzalez seizure in April 2000 even though the vice president had opposed sending the Cuban boy back to the island.

Penelas said Monday that he helped Gore by raising money for his campaign and conducting interviews with Hispanic radio stations. "This is Gore and Deutsch using the politics of yesterday — slash and burn," Penelas said.

But Penelas had failed to attend a Democratic Party-sponsored Gore-Lieberman rally in Hialeah two weeks before the election, opting for the trip to Spain instead. And Penelas wasn't there when Gore held a celebrity-filled bash on South Miami Beach the night before the election.

A Gore spokeswoman declined to comment on Graham and Nelson's reaction, but Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and top fund-raiser for Gore, said: "The truth is, Alex Penelas hurt us in the 2000 election."

Both Graham and Nelson have said they will not endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary, but said Gore's comments raised concerns.

Nelson said Gore's decision to inject himself in the race would hurt the party's ability to retain Graham's seat and cause a disruption in a key state for presidential candidate John Kerry.

"This doesn't help John Kerry in a state that is thought to be split right down the middle," Nelson said.