Baltimore Sun

Gore's regret is evident in speech

Al Gore bowed out of the presidential race last night, acknowledging his disappointment after losing a rancorous postelection battle to George W. Bush but pledging his full support to his triumphant rival.

"This is America, and we put country before party," Gore said, speaking before an American flag in a nationally televised address. "We will stand together behind our new president."

The ambition of a lifetime dashed 23 hours earlier when the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a fatal blow to his recount effort in Florida, Gore phoned to congratulate the Texas governor and concede the race shortly before 9 p.m.

The vice president had called his Republican opponent once before, early the morning after Election Day, only to retract his concession when he learned Florida - and the presidency - were too close to call.

"I promised him that I wouldn't call him back this time," Gore said, smiling weakly.

Pausing and swallowing hard before he began his eight-minute prime-time address, which at times strived for humor and at others sounded resolute, Gore did not hide his own regret over the victory that barely eluded him.

With his wife, Tipper; their four children; his running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman; Lieberman's wife, Hadassah; and their daughter standing nearby, Gore thanked those who voted for him and reflected on the "long and difficult road" of the past five weeks.

"I know that many of my supporters are disappointed," he said in measured tones. "I am, too."

But he also made a pledge: "I say to President-elect Bush that what remains a partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country."

Still, Gore never actually called his opponent the winner of the race. Instead, he said he was conceding "for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy."

Standing in the vice president's ceremonial room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building just steps from the White House he labored two years to win, Gore criticized the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court that helped deliver Bush a victory. But he also called for reconciliation.

"Let there be no doubt: While I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it," Gore said. He added that he has offered to meet with Bush as soon as possible and pledged to be "personally at his disposal."

As for his own future, Gore said, "I don't know the answer to that one yet." He said he'd retreat for the holidays to the family farm in his native Tennessee, a state he lost in the general election. "I know I'll spend time in Tennessee and mend some fences, literally and figuratively," he quipped.

But he hinted that he was not ready to put politics behind him. "I have seen America in this campaign and I like what I see," he said. "It's worth fighting for, and that's a fight I'll never stop."

Gore concluded by reprising a line he had used eight years ago in running with Bill Clinton against Bush's father, one that Bush running mate Dick Cheney used against Clinton and him this year: "And now my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others, it's time for me to go."

The vice president left his official residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory at 8:30 p.m. in a multicar motorcade that wound past cheering supporters outside the Eisenhower building. The faithful remained in the cold rain while Gore spoke. When he re-emerged, they closed around him and chanted "Gore in Four" -- a call for him to run again in 2004.

Staying behind closed doors all day while his dying campaign issued its last gasps, Gore spent the hours before his speech deciding how to quit a narrow race he firmly believes he won. Joined by top aides, Gore scribbled notes and dictated large portions of the at-times wistful address.

When asked whether the vice president had written the speech himself, a Gore senior adviser replied, "Totally." The Gore team had drafted concession remarks at earlier points in this topsy-turvy election, but the aide said that this time, Gore started from scratch - hoping to reflect both his adamant defense of the Florida recount and his desire to help heal the country's partisan wounds in the aftermath.

Since the election, the team that has shaped Gore's message, led by veteran Democratic speechwriter Bob Shrum, has shuttled to Gore's home with each seeming defeat. But every time, they turned back as another reprieve materialized and the campaign lived one more day.

But yesterday passed in a slow series of realizations that now, finally, it was over. Less than 12 hours after the Supreme Court's devastating ruling against Gore, the campaign was clearly on life support. At 10 a.m., campaign Chairman William M. Daley issued a terse statement saying the recount effort would end immediately.

As some of Gore's longtime staffers in Washington greeted the news with teary-eyed exhaustion, the vice president's Florida staff received a conference call from top strategists Ron Klain and Michael Whouley telling them to close down the recount headquarters and pack their bags. Their message was unequivocal:

"They said, `We won, the state did a great job, but the other side ran out the clock,'" said Nick Baldick, a top Gore strategist in Florida.

During the morning, Gore spoke by phone for five minutes with President Clinton, who offered words of support while traveling in Belfast, Ireland.

Later, by nightfall, the vice president was the host at an already scheduled Christmas party for supporters - including celebrities such as rocker Jon Bon Jovi. Afterward, Gore and Lieberman returned to the vice president's residence for a long-delayed Election Night party.

In the hours before the speech, many on Capitol Hill were calling on Gore to take the lead in assuaging the post-election bitterness.

"His speech is going to be the most important speech of his life, not just for himself but for the country," said Louisiana Democratic Sen. John B. Breaux. "What he says will set the tone for the next four years."

Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said the vice president needed to begin bridging the post-election divide.

"I do think that the vice president's tone will be extremely important," Lott said. "I've seen other senators say that the most important speech, perhaps, at this juncture will be the one that is made by the loser, rather than the winner - although I think they're both going to be very important."

Although last night ended Gore's presidential bid, the most loyal supporters were already thinking of a 2004 campaign. Earlier in the day, spokesman Chris Lehane said that staffers derived hope from the thought that "the phoenix will always rise from the ashes."