By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 1999
ORLANDO -- Bill Clinton and Al Gore are a tag team again.
The president told 2,300 delegates at the Florida Democratic Convention on Saturday that Gore deserves to be his successor as he recounted the administration's successes in erasing the federal deficit, reducing poverty and protecting the environment.
"I want you to know, it would not have happened without the vice president," a hoarse Clinton told the cheering crowd at the Wyndham Palace Resort & Spa.
Several hours later, Gore vowed that as president he would work to continue economic prosperity, protect affirmative action and persuade Congress to approve the nuclear test ban treaty. He said he could win Florida just as Clinton did in 1996, even though the Republican nominee could be Gov. Jeb Bush's brother, George W. Bush.
"If I'm the nominee, I intend to make Florida a prime battleground," Gore said in an interview with several Florida reporters Saturday night. "Even if the governor of Texas is the Republican nominee, I think that Florida is going to be a toss-up state."
Gore also renewed his commitment to restore the Everglades, questioning some recent decisions by the South Florida Water Management District board since Bush became governor.
"It was much easier when Gov. (Lawton) Chiles was part of the team," the vice president said.
The interview capped a successful day for Gore, who is supported by most state party activists and met separately Saturday afternoon with state party officials, black and Hispanic Democrats, and labor leaders.
The convention underscored a shift in campaign strategy by the vice president, who has become more aggressive in criticizing Democratic challenger Bill Bradley and more at ease in acknowledging his ties to Clinton.
For months Gore tried to distance himself from the impeached president and rarely mentioned Clinton by name. Now the vice president is directly acknowledging his ties to Clinton as he simultaneously touts the administration's accomplishments and sketches his own vision for the future.
Saturday, it was a package deal.
First, Clinton praised Gore for "supporting every tough decision I had to make as president" on issues ranging from the budget to tobacco, from foreign policy to gun control.
"I can tell you that in the history of the country, he is the most effective and influential vice president who has ever served," the president said.
Then Gore, mentioning Clinton several times, said he would continue the economic good times as president. He warned a Republican would turn back the clock to an era of soaring budget deficits like those Clinton faced following the Reagan and Bush administrations.
"This kind of progress is not something we just ought to set casually aside," Gore said. "It counts for a lot. Republicans try to make the best of it. You would think they would be humbled a little bit after their policies produced a catastrophe and ours produced this strong economy."
It is unnecessary for Gore to distance himself from Clinton despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal, several convention delegates said.
"I have no concern about that whatsoever," said Naomi Ryan, a 62-year-old retired teacher from Hillsborough County. "We have to separate the personalities."
Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar suggested "Clinton fatigue" -- a label that suggests voters are tired of the administration after seven years and the impeachment trial -- is a creation of the media.
"Are you tired of low interest rates? Are you tired of low unemployment rates?" Hastings asked the crowd, which roared back, "No!"
This was Clinton's fifth appearance at a Florida Democratic Convention since 1981. The president credits winning a 1991 straw poll with jump-starting his first presidential campaign.
In his 40-minute speech, Clinton asked Democrats to compare the state of the nation now to its condition before he took office. He said crime, poverty, welfare rolls and unemployment are down while the number of new businesses and jobs are up.
While Gore has far superior support among Democratic activists in Florida, several delegates said they were eager to hear from former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. Although Bradley was examined for an irregular heartbeat in California Friday and canceled campaign events Saturday, he is expected to speak at the convention today.
Democrats, who promoted this weekend as a new beginning, have lost considerable ground in Florida since Clinton was first elected in 1992. Republicans now firmly control the Legislature, and Republican Jeb Bush won the governorship last year. While Democrats still outnumber Republicans in terms of party registration by 400,000 voters, they are not the majority of the electorate as they were eight years ago.
But Democrats argued their party better reflects Florida's diversity and voters' attitudes on issues such as education, health care, gun control and the environment.
Throughout the convention, Democrats also have focused on affirmative action and the U.S. Senate race as two areas where they contend Republicans are vulnerable.
Clinton, Gore and virtually every other speaker criticized Californian Ward Connerly's proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would end racial preferences in public education and contracting.
"I think our record, not me, America ... in the last seven years proves Mr. Connerly is wrong in wanting to end affirmative action," Clinton said.
Others linked Connerly and Bush's separate effort to eliminate racial preferences, even though the governor has called Connerly's effort divisive. They suggested both men reflect a Republican attitude that is insensitive to women and minorities. State opinion polls show most Florida voters favor Connerly's amendment and that Bush's approval rating is high.
"He's out-Connerlied Connerly," U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek of Miami, one of three African-Americans in the state's congressional delegation, said of the governor.
Democrats also promoted state Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, the only Democrat running for the Senate seat held by retiring Republican Connie Mack. Nelson leads in early polls in hypothetical matchups between either GOP candidate, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Altamonte Springs and state Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher.