WASHINGTON -- As he stepped off the political stage, Al Gore managed to achieve what had often eluded him during his presidential campaign: He won Americans over by persuading them of his sincerity and likability.
"He's a good sportsman. He looked you in the eye. He took it like a man," said Richard Poirier, who raised a glass to Gore at Terry's Bar and Grill in Topeka, Kan., after watching Gore's concession speech.
Catherine Carlisle of Salt Lake City said she saw a more "personable" vice president Wednesday night. "That was a side I'd never seen," she said.
Across the nation, Americans gathered around televisions to hear Gore end his White House quest, and to take measure of how he did so. Many had blamed the vice president for dragging the nation through a five-week postelection stalemate by waging legal challenges to the Florida results.
But almost without exception, those interviewed embraced Gore, or at least the message of unity he delivered as he bowed out.
"I thought it was an extraordinarily gracious speech," said Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat. "If he made more speeches like that, I think he would be president. I think we saw the real Al Gore tonight. His sincerity found a place."
Gore, appearing relaxed and upbeat, betrayed no bitterness in the speech. He made no mention of the fact that he won the popular vote. His voice never cracked, though his office, filled with family members and glum aides, swirled with emotion as he abandoned his life's dream.
"Now the political struggle is over and we turn again to the unending struggle for the common good of all Americans and for those multitudes around the world who look to us for leadership in the cause of freedom," Gore said.
"I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends," he said.
They were welcome words to those who feared the nation was being damaged by the electoral deadlock.
"He said the right things," said Gary Jones of Minot, N.D. "Let bygones be bygones. Everybody should pull together. He did it as a gentleman or a warrior -- you graciously accept defeat and step down."
Still, some doubted Gore's sincerity.
Betty Kimball of Columbia, Mo., concluded Gore's calls for unity were prompted by political necessity.
"I thought he made a great speech, but I don't think he had any choice but to be gracious," she said.
More than 30 Gore backers braved freezing rain to show their support after his address, and several others gathered there out of pure curiosity. Gone, late Wednesday, were the bitter chants of George W. Bush supporters who demonstrated outside his home every day for five weeks.
"I'm a Bush supporter, but I have the utmost respect for the vice president of our country," said Andrea Fritz of Wilmington, Del. "I thought he did a wonderful job in the speech."
While Gore offered few hints of his plans, his supporters were already rooting for him to run again in four years.
They stood outside his home Wednesday bearing signs that read "Gore 2004."
A throng of supporters chanted "Gore in Four!" as he left the White House in a blaze of flashbulbs.
Gore appeared to relish the moment. Instead of ducking into his limousine, he stepped up into the vehicle, turned to face the crowd and gave them a long wave and a wide smile.
He capped his address by paraphrasing a slogan he had used mockingly when he and Bill Clinton evicted Bush's father from the White House eight years ago: "It is time for them to go."
"Now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others, it's time for me to go," Gore said.
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