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Dem leaders gather in D.C. to embrace Kerry
WASHINGTON — The Democratic Party came together to embrace its presidential standard-bearer on Thursday, aligning its diverse constituencies and past luminaries behind John Kerry's candidacy.

Former presidents Clinton and Carter, 2000 nominee Al Gore and nearly all of Kerry's primary rivals linked hands at a sold-out dinner to energize core supporters and raise more than $11 million for the campaign against President Bush. Only Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, the only other primary candidate still running, was not invited.

Kerry rallied the crowd with jibes at Bush. "I want to start by saying something nice about President Bush. Of all the presidents we've had with the last name of Bush, his economic plan ranks in the top two."

Kerry said Bush has divided the country rather than united it, as he promised.

"He has proposed to amend the Constitution for political purposes," Kerry said, a reference to a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

Carter, Clinton and Gore set aside their sometimes-strained relationships to show solidarity for Kerry, who has enough delegates to claim the party's nomination. The three haven't been together since they attended a service for Sept. 11 victims.

Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe said the party soon will report to the Federal Election Commission that it has $25 million in the bank and is debt free for the first time in years. The Republicans had $45 million on hand at the end of February and have been raising more since.

Kerry also received an endorsement Thursday from his most contentious primary-season rival, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and from two major unions: the 1.4-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the 1.2-million-member United Auto Workers. AFSCME's backing brings political activists and financial resources. The UAW is important because of its strength in Michigan, Missouri and Ohio — states that are expected to be closely contested in the fall.

At George Washington University, home of Dean's largest student support chapter, Dean said he would work to rally his supporters for Kerry.

After a season of arguing over differences, "we are going to talk about the things we have in common," Dean said.

Kerry said he is running to "restore people's trust that what we say, we mean — that the things that we talk about in a campaign are not promises to be broken, they are promises to be kept."

The party also formally opened a renovated, technology-packed $30 million headquarters that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called "the temple" for political training, fundraising and the crafting of positions and strategy. The building features television and radio studios, expanded office space and a massive new 170-million-name computer database named "Demzilla."

It showed off the new tools for state party officials from around the nation. In briefings, the party put out the word that it will refocus its efforts on grass-roots politics, mounting a county-by-county campaign to avoid the kind of loss it suffered four years ago with Gore as its nominee.

Entering McAuliffe's new corner office, which is equipped as a TV studio, visitors walk over a doormat bearing a likeness of President Bush and the words, "Give Bush the Boot."

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