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Gore fields voters' 'softball' questions adroitly

Al Gore presents his agenda to friendly listeners in Tampa. He, too, is critical of efforts to replace affirmative action.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2000


TAMPA -- Vice President Al Gore invited voters at his first town hall meeting in Florida to throw him any question, "whatever remaining doubt you want to ask me about."

Most turned out to be softballs.

Gore easily handled questions on education, affirmative action and the environment as he spent more than two hours Tuesday night with 250 hand-picked voters at Hillsborough Community College's Ybor City campus.

Even the vice president noted there were more Gore stickers on jackets than at most of his meetings with undecided voters. But the forum provided him an opportunity to sketch his campaign agenda before friendly listeners.

Dressed casually in a blue sport shirt, Dockers pants and boots, Gore told the crowd he opposes tuition vouchers and wants to lower class sizes. He said he would defend affirmative action, help more people connect to the Internet, fight global warming and expand affordable housing.

"I came here slightly undecided but you have fired me up," Gerald White, 37, told Gore after complaining of the "pain" inflicted by the Bush brothers, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "I am ready to work for you."

Florida's primary is March 14, and Gore supporters hope the vice president sews up the Democratic nomination a week earlier when such mega-states as New York, California and Ohio vote. But they still are preparing for a race against former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. Gore's wife, Tipper, will campaign in Jacksonville and South Florida later this week.

"We see this as building momentum, even if it's over after the 7th," said Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state chairman. "Nobody is going to abandon Florida. I see us in here for the long haul."

In Ybor City, there were no questions about the 1996 campaign finance scandal like Gore fielded in New Hampshire. The closest he came to controversy was a question about gay rights.

"I'm not going to have a litmus test for the joint chiefs of staff," he joked, alluding to a controversy he ignited last month over gays in the military. "The time has come to say leave people alone for what they are and stop discriminating against them. Come on."

There were light moments between Gore's long answers about public policy.

When a questioner asking about Internet connections began, "I know you're the self-proclaimed inventor of the Internet," the vice president cut him off.

"Don't do it, don't do it," Gore jokingly admonished.

Gore's visit came a day after Bradley's appearance in Ybor City, where the former New Jersey senator blasted Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's efforts to replace affirmative action in state contracting and university admissions with the One Florida initiative.

The vice president echoed Bradley's criticisms.

"I don't know him very well," Gore said of the governor, "but I think he is dead wrong in trying to repeal affirmative action in the state of Florida."

Tuesday afternoon at the sprawling Century Village retirement complex in Pembroke Pines, Gore also renewed his attacks on Bradley's health care proposal.

He reminded more than 1,000 senior citizens that Bradley's plan does not earmark money from the federal budget surplus to extend the life of the Medicare trust fund, which is expected to run out of money in 15 years. He said that would put Medicare at risk for baby boomers.

"I think that is short-sighted, especially in a state like Florida," Gore told the applauding crowd.

Florida has the nation's highest proportion of residents older than 65, with more than 2.6-million seniors.

By suggesting that Bradley would threaten the future of Medicare, Gore is tapping into one of the biggest concerns of the elderly -- the Democratic Party's most loyal voters.

Gore, who offers a less expensive, more gradual approach to reducing the number of uninsured, also continued to suggest that Bradley's proposal to replace Medicaid with a new program would leave the poor without coverage.

Bradley would cover all uninsured children through the federal employees' health benefits plan and offer discounts and premium subsidies to low-income adults.

On his flight from New York to Fort Lauderdale, Gore told reporters he has more in common with Republican candidate John McCain than with Bradley on Medicare.

"McCain and I have in common putting money from the surplus into Medicare and keeping it from being drawn down when the baby boomers retire," the vice president said. "Bradley would not put a penny into this."

Bradley complains that Gore is mischaracterizing his health care proposal.

He says Medicare is secure now and that universal health care is a more pressing priority.

"Once again, Al Gore is using scare tactics and distortions rather than telling the truth to voters," said Sallie Stohler, spokeswoman for the Bradley campaign in Florida.

John Clarkson, the dean of the University of Miami medical school, said Gore misled the Century Village seniors with "erroneous conclusions" about Bradley's plan and its impact on Medicare and health care for the poor.

"I think he is trying to scare that group of senior citizens that Sen. Bradley would do something adverse to Medicare, which is not at all part of the plan," said Clarkson, who attended the event and prefers Bradley's approach.

While Bradley has questioned Gore's truthfulness on issues such as the vice president's record on abortion rights, the vice president contended he was sticking to policy differences.

"I'm not saying anything against him personally -- not a word," Gore said.

But he went on to attack Bradley for citing Ronald Reagan as an example of a president who motivated Americans and focused on a few big ideas.

Gore said that approach led to the neglect of problems ranging from the spread of AIDS to the decline of city neighborhoods.

"I disagree with it," he said. "We live in a complex world where these challenges are often interconnected."

The health care pitch, combined with a call for a patients bill of rights and a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients, resonated with the audience.

"I'm not so sure Bradley will do away with everything Gore says but you know politicians," said Florence Liepling, a Gore supporter.

"I'm all for what he says about health care."

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