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Democrats gather to boost Kerry's bid

Carter, Clinton, Gore among party bigwigs attending

Kerry is surrounded by his fellow Democrats at the unity rally.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A veritable who's who of the Democratic establishment gathered with presumptive presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry for a fund-raising gala designed to show off party unity in the coming battle with President Bush.

The soirée Thursday night at the National Building Museum in Washington, which raised $11 million for the Democratic National Committee, featured Kerry, most of his vanquished primary foes, former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and the party's 2000 standard-bearer, former Vice President Al Gore.

The evening began with all of them walking onstage and grasping hands for the cameras, to cheers from 1,800 attendees munching on barbecue.

Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, the evening's emcee, offered a tongue-in-cheek thank you to Republicans "who have worked so hard to bring us together again."

"We are so united that when we leave here tonight, they're going to have to use the 'jaws of life' to pry us apart," she said. "[Republicans] drove us into each other's arms."

Kerry said he was "strengthened" by the support "of those who were recently my competitors but who are always my friends." He also vowed that he would fight back against "negative" attacks by the Bush campaign.

"This year, our opponents don't have a record to run on. They have a record to run from," Kerry said. "We are going to fight back, and we are going to win in the right way that lifts our country up instead of driving our politics down to the lowest common denominator."

Kerry, back in campaign mode Thursday after a skiing vacation in Idaho, did not address the controversy roiling Washington over charges by former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke that the Bush White House didn't do enough to prevent the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But he did vow to vigorously continue the war on terrorism if he wins the White House in November.

"We will stand as one country to protect the safety and the security of our people, and we will never rest until we win the war on terror," he said. "As commander-in-chief, I will be ready to wage a more effective war on terror that respects the fact that multi-lateralism is not weakness, it is strength."

DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe said the $11 million raised Thursday night set an all-time party record for raising federally regulated "hard money" contributions.

The event was also the culmination of a 10-day fund-raising blitz by the Kerry campaign that succeeded in its goal of raising $10 million, according to a Kerry campaign adviser.

The appearance of Clinton, who did not endorse any candidate in the primary contests, marked his most public foray yet into the 2004 campaign.

He accused the Republicans of trying to turn Kerry from a "three-dimensional human being into a two-dimensional cartoon." He also charged that the Bush administration had misplaced priorities and was making the wrong choices.

"The Republicans used to be so mean to Hillary and me, but ever since we got out and started making money, we're the most important people in America to them," Clinton said, alluding to Bush tax cuts benefiting higher-income Americans.

"You are living in a budget today passed by this Republican Congress that protected my tax cut and cut 300,000 poor children out of their after-school programs -- threw them on the street," he said. "That's a choice they made. It's the wrong choice for America, and we can do better than that."

Carter, who faced a fractured Democratic Party that helped doom his bid for a second term in 1980, told the crowd that the mood among Democrats today marks "the most remarkable unity that I've ever seen." He thanked the primary candidates for "reinvigorating the party," singling out former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean by name.

Carter, too, had remained on the sidelines in the primaries, although he made a highly publicized appearance with Dean on the day before the Iowa caucuses in January.

In his remarks Thursday, Carter made a direct appeal to independent candidate Ralph Nader -- whom Carter described as such a trusted friend that he was once allowed to umpire a Carter family softball game down in Georgia -- to get out of the race.

"When I was president, he gave me a lot of advice. And tonight, I want to return the favor by giving him some advice," Carter said. "Ralph, go back to umpiring softball games or examining the rear end of automobiles, and don't risk costing the Democrats the White House this year as you did four years ago."

In one of the more dramatic moments of the primary campaign, Gore endorsed Dean over Kerry. But Thursday night, he gave a passionate speech in support of the new nominee.

"John Kerry earned the nomination of this party. He won it the hard way. He got out there and fought for it," Gore said. "He did it in a way that earned the respect of all of his opponents and earned the respect of everyone in our party."

Gore also spoke of the disputed 2000 campaign, when Bush secured Florida's electoral votes -- and the presidency -- after a Supreme Court decision. He urged Democrats to remember how they felt when they learned of that ruling.

"Every time that you have felt that [Bush] shouldn't be there, every time you have felt that you would like to get him out of the White House -- I want you to draw on all that energy, and I want you to channel it in support of John Kerry," Gore said.

CNN's Kelly Wallace and Justin Dial contributed to this report.

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