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    Al Gore at ease in return to stage

    The defeated presidential hopeful addresses travel executives in Orlando.

    [AP photo]
    Members of The Oral Majority gather outside the Orange County convention center in Orlando.

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 2001


    ORLANDO -- When last the state of Florida saw Al Gore, it was just before dawn on Election Day.

    A final, all-night campaign swing had ended in Tampa and he was jetting to Tennessee to watch the results.

    "Chad" was just a name.

    But soon enough, people would be joking about the other meaning. They would hear new phrases like "Sore Loserman" and "full, fair and accurate count." People in Iowa would speak learnedly about Section 102.168 of Florida's election law. And a little-known state official named Katherine Harris would rise from the ashes of a disastrous election to become a celebrity.

    But on that morning in Tampa only 185 days ago, Al Gore was still vice president of the United States -- on the cusp of being leader of the free world.

    On Wednesday, he returned to Florida -- to deliver a speech to a group of travel industry executives.

    "I am Al Gore," the former vice president deadpanned to a crowd of nearly 6,000. "I used to be the next president of the United States."

    It was one of several one-liners about his diminished role that kept the crowd in stitches during a 27-minute speech, which saw Gore display a level of ease that rarely came through in his campaign.

    When the former vice president was introduced, about half the room tentatively rose to applaud. By the time he had finished, the entire crowd rewarded him with a robust standing ovation. One of the converted was Mike Dukette, a sales manager for an upscale California hotel who voted for George W. Bush.

    "He should do stand-up," Dukette remarked halfway through the speech.

    Dukette and others said they especially liked Gore's answer when asked after the speech what he thought of Bush's first 100 days in office.

    Gore said he felt obliged to stay in the background after the "intense ordeal" of the post-election fight that brought a 537-vote victory to Bush.

    "I decided to observe a period in which I would not re-enter the public arena to criticize what the new president was doing," he said. "The time will come when that will feel appropriate. But I just think that after what we've been through, we need a little time to kind of get our act together in the United States."

    The answer brought applause.

    In response to another question, Gore said the Florida Legislature had "done a good job" correcting flaws in the state's election laws. "I particularly applaud the provision to, whenever a vote is in dispute, to count the ballot by hand," Gore said, referring to his oft-repeated claim that not enough ballots were manually recounted after the election.

    Another hint of regret came when he summed up the election this way: "You know you win some, you lose some, and then there's that little-known third category."

    "He was witty, he was artful. I think he was engaging and clearly relaxed," said William S. Norman, president and chief executive officer of the Travel Industry Association of America, which invited Gore as the big name that would hold conventioneers to the end of the conference.

    Norman declined to say what Gore's speaking fee was, but added it was worth the money.

    Outside the sprawling Orange County Convention Center, a plane hired by Gore supporters flew a banner that read: "Florida Welcomes President Gore." But there were also those who complain Gore has not stood up as Bush pushes his agenda.

    "He's keeping his mouth shut when the country desperately needs a leader," said Bob Kunst, president of the Oral Majority, a group that has staged numerous demonstrations since the election.

    The speech was said to be Gore's most high-profile public appearance since he attended Bush's inauguration in January. Since February, he has taught a non-credit class at Columbia University's School of Journalism, where his students have given him mixed reviews. He also taught at Middle Tennessee State University and Fisk University.

    Why follow that with a convention speech to a travel group?

    Norman, the group's president, said it didn't hurt that an active player in the group is hotelier Jonathan Tisch, a prominent donor to Democratic causes, including Gore's campaign and his post-election legal fight. Tisch, president of Loews Hotels, also has been a friend of Gore's for 20 years.

    Also, this was not just any travel group. It was the annual gathering for the Travel Industry Association of America, where trip planners from other countries meet with hoteliers, rental car companies, theme parks and other U.S. tourism businesses. More than $3-billion in transactions occur during the four-day conference, organizers said.

    Gore praised the industry for its efforts to help with the federal government's welfare-to-work program.

    He also wove in a string of jokes based largely on the cold fact that he no longer enjoys power or perks. Gore joked that he has to travel in traffic like everyone else.

    "And then there's airline travel," he added, letting the line sink in as laughter grew about the high rate of passenger complaints. "How long has this been going on?"

    In a serious moment, he said he learned much from the election's disappointment, but he quickly returned to humor.

    "And I often get asked the question, 'Is there anything I would have done differently?' And yes there is," he said. "If I had it to do over again, I would have kissed Tipper much longer after the convention. But she was struggling and I. . . ."

    - Researchers Kitty Bennett and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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