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    Democrats: They came, they spoke, they dined

    Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman talk about their support for workers during a stop in Tampa on Monday.

    By KATHRYN WEXLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 2000


    TAMPA -- Working class America, Vice President Al Gore is one of you.

    That was the message the presidential hopeful drove home to voters as he and running mate Joseph Lieberman blew through two Tampa diners and a firehouse early Labor Day, part of a marathon 27-hour campaign pitch in six states.

    "My mom worked as a waitress on the all-night shift," Gore told a handful of waitresses at his first pre-dawn stop, Pop 'N Sons diner, an all-night joint on the neon-lit Dale Mabry Highway. The Harvard graduate and scion of a longtime U.S. senator repeated his story to the dozen bleary-eyed patrons there, most of whom stared back blankly.

    "How many are usually here at 4 or 5 in the morning?" Gore finally asked just after 5 a.m., resigning himself to small talk with his press secretary's family while downing country ham and biscuits.

    Several miles away at the landmark Alessi Bakery, Gore's running mate was holding forth about his humble beginnings.

    "Sometimes in government, I know in the Senate, at the end of the day you're not exactly sure what you've accomplished. But here at the end of the day, these guys can see this beautiful work," said Lieberman, gazing at a strawberry Napoleon.

    "It makes me think what could have become of my life if my father had stayed in the bakery business," said Lieberman, who went on to attend Yale as an undergraduate and law student.

    Florida, with its 25 electoral votes, is a state that a lot of political experts considered a slam dunk for the GOP this year because of Gov. Jeb Bush's popularity. But now Gore is showing signs he wants to compete against George W. Bush in the state by visiting Florida several times as the presidential race heats up. Lieberman plans to return to South Florida at the end of the week.

    As a sign of the Gore strategy, Tampa was one of the stops during the whirlwind Labor Day tour dubbed the "American Workathon."

    At Tampa Fire Station No. 9, near Armenia Avenue in West Tampa's Hispanic neighborhood, Gore and Lieberman ate omelets, their second breakfasts, with local firefighters. The International Association of Firefighters was one of the first groups to formally endorse Gore.

    Outside, standing in the back of a vintage red pickup truck, Gore told hundreds of cheering supporters that the round-the-clock visits among American workers were a way to "reconnect with our roots."

    "We need to start looking out for the middle class families," he urged to applause beneath a pinkish sunrise.

    The round-the-clock effort started Sunday night in Philadelphia, where Gore and Lieberman met with construction workers. Then it was off to Flint, Mich., to woo late-night hospital workers.

    After the Tampa stop, Gore headed to Pittsburgh, the biggest event of the Democratic ticket's day, where Gore marched in a Labor Day parade and spoke before thousands of cheering backers at a riverside rally, introduced by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Lieberman went to Detroit on Monday.

    Today, the Democrats head to Ohio, with Gore in Columbus and Lieberman in Toledo.

    The Democrats' caffeine-fueled events Monday were an attempt to bring people like Lena Collins into their fold. Unlike many voters, Collins, 54, hasn't made up her mind yet about Gore or his Republican rival.

    Polls show Gore and Bush are neck-and-neck in many states, and in them, voters without firm party loyality will likely decide the election.

    Gore's speech, touching on everything from handing the federal budget surplus to the middle class to raising minimum wage by a dollar, gave Collins the sense that the vice president is finally coming into his own.

    "All of a sudden, we're seeing Al Gore," said the 54-year-old software consultant from Citrus Park. "We haven't seen Al Gore in eight years."

    Collins voted for Clinton twice, and would "really hate" to help break the Democratic presidential lineage. But her vote boils down to which candidate designs the best plan to cover prescriptions for seniors and safeguard Social Security.

    Even the thrill of seeing him up close didn't persuade her to cast a vote in his favor. And she didn't hear anything new during the rally.

    "It's the same one he's been telling us," Collins said.

    During a live interview on NBC's Today program, shot with the Tampa fire station as a backdrop, Gore referred to the broader significance of the campaign event.

    "It is a symbolic way of making a point," he said, sporting blue jeans, a polo shirt, black leather western-style boots and a face full of peachy makeup.

    Tampa firefighter Tom Cawley wasn't buying it.

    "I don't believe anybody who's been in politics that long can know the middle class," said Cawley, 38, who voted for Clinton the first time but not the second, and doesn't know whom he will back this time around.

    But at La Teresita restaurant, an old Cuban haunt that was Gore's final Tampa stop, he got an ovation just for strolling through the door.

    "You're my man, all the way," said Joe Valdez, 67, pumping Gore's hand. "He's for the working man."

    - Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Information from Times wires was used.

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