Former Vice President Al Gore criticized President Bush's handling of the economy in a speech Saturday night that marked what he called a return to "the national debate."

"It is now clear that our nation's economic policy is simply not working, especially for those who most depend on its success," Gore said in prepared remarks.

"We need a government that lives within its means, invests in the American people and supports tax cuts that are fair and go to those who need them," he said. "What we don't need is a government whose budget is based on inaccurate assumptions, and whose priorities provide special favors for the few over the many."

Gore also called for better protection of the environment and campaign finance reform -- indirectly criticizing the administration's link to the Enron scandal when he said, "recent events have made it clear this reform is needed more than ever."

Gore did not say whether he'll run against Bush in 2004 and reiterated his support for the president's handling of the war on terrorism. He told a $25-a-person fund-raiser at a downtown hotel that "it is time for the American people to look at the state of our country and decide the course we will take."

Gore has been criticized for keeping too low a profile since conceding the presidential election, but said "it was right for me and I would do it again. ... And tonight as a new election season begins, I intend to rejoin the national debate."

The former vice president has just created a new political action committee to raise money for Democrats seeking election this year. He is also expected to travel the nation on their behalf, which would allow him to keep in contact with party loyalists and potential donors for a 2004 campaign.

"At this point, he probably has really not decided whether he wants to run, but the object is to keep his options open and develop more visibility. And this is the time to do it," said John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor. "My guess is the people really watching carefully are his potential Democratic rivals. They know he is the 800-pound gorilla."

Gore kicked off his new effort in Tennessee because he is still trying to mend fences in the home state he lost for the first time in 2000. Had he won Tennessee, he would have had enough electoral votes to win the White House.