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Al Gore In Microsoft's Den

Vice President Al Gore, who has been urged by his presidential campaign advisers to be "top-dog" forceful, tried it on for size.

Just 10 days after government lawyers won the first round in an antitrust lawsuit against the giant Microsoft Corp., Gore showed up at company headquarters Monday, ready to serve as a lightning rod for employees' anger - and willing to dish up stern commentary of his own about the evils of "unhealthy concentrations of power."

Gore, the Democratic administration's point man on technology, spoke admiringly of federal antitrust laws and said they're sometimes still needed to make sure competition isn't snuffed out.

He said he would not - and could not - defend or criticize the Justice Department lawsuit against Microsoft, nor comment directly on the Nov. 5 decision by U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson that Microsoft had unfairly stifled competition.

Gore brought his presidential campaign to Microsoft's suburban Redmond headquarters, where he spoke to about 300 mid- and upper-level managers of the software giant. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was several states away, attending the Comdex computer and software convention in Las Vegas.

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Gore was friendly, but a bit combative. And he stated his position on the antitrust laws without prompting, saying, "I think you should know that."

He threw away an upbeat and diplomatic prepared speech about how to spur innovation and support the nation's high-technology industry. Instead, he gave a ringing endorsement of antitrust laws and lectured the audience about the importance of competition.

Although the Microsoft crowd mostly cheered Gore's comments supporting gun control laws, abortion rights, a national hate crimes law and better, safer schools, the atmosphere turned chilly when the topic turned to antitrust.

"I was pretty upset and angry when I read about what they said about this company," one manager told the vicpresident.

Gore said it is not "a wild, crazy notion that the antitrust laws would apply to the software industry." He again stressed, however, that he was not specifically referring to Microsoft.

Microsoft dominates the market for personal computer operating systems with its Windows software.

Within hours after the judge announced his decision, Attorney General Janet Reno and Justice Department antitrust attorney Joel Klein were hailing the ruling as a strong victory for consumers.

"I am deeply conflicted to see an administration having a favorable reaction" to the judge's ruling, one of Gore's questioners said. "The problem is I want to vote for you, but I feel deeply conflicted."

Gore asked how many other employees had similar questions, and a majority of the hands shot up. He told the managers, "Look, I respect your feelings," but quickly went back to his refrain that antitrust laws still must be enforced when competition is unfairly stifled.

"The marketplace ought to accommodate a chance to compete," he said. "When dominance in one area is used to prevent competition in another area, that's wrong."

By David Ammons
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