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    Gore pitches drug plan

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    As the Democrat talks with seniors in the capital, Gov. Jeb Bush praises his brother's record.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 29, 2000


    TALLAHASSEE -- Like a middle-aged son struggling to care for elderly parents, Vice President Al Gore listened to stories of hardship from senior citizens Monday and promised to make things better for them when he gets to the White House.

    "I will never let you down," Gore told about 175 seniors at a town hall meeting set up to tout a plan to help pay for prescription drugs for Medicare recipients -- a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

    The staged event -- busloads of seniors were brought to a conference center at Florida State University to provide an audience -- nonetheless had poignant moments.

    When 77-year-old Arthur Flatt choked up as he described the struggles of caring for a disabled son, Gore reached over and hugged him. "You're doing great," Gore assured Flatt. He told another woman who had to stop taking pain medication because it was too expensive: "We're going to lift you up."

    Gore also reminded the seniors that he and his wife, Tipper, are part of a generation of baby boomers caring for elderly parents; his wife's mother lives with them.

    Her drug for arthritis pain costs $108 a month, Gore said. But the couple's 14-year-old black Labrador retriever, which also suffers from arthritis, can get the same drug from a veterinarian for $37.80 a month. "Don't you think that ought to be changed?" asked Gore, to the applause of the crowd.

    As part of a weeklong focus on health care, the vice president promised to force competition, bring down drug prices and add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare plans.

    Republican George W. Bush's campaign quickly responded, firing off a news release that described Gore's plan as a "nationalized drug plan that makes the federal government the dispenser of prescription drugs for seniors."

    Bush, the governor of Texas, continued to focus on education reform Monday and will continue his visits to schools this week. His brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, held an early morning news conference Monday to deflect attention from Gore's visit and steer the debate to education issues.

    He announced an "Educators for Bush" coalition to support his brother's education reforms, chaired by Steve Uhlfelder, a Democrat and former chairman of the Florida Board of Regents, and Tracey Bailey, a former National Teacher of the Year.

    "We can have a renaissance in education in this country if my brother is elected," Jeb Bush said. He bragged of his brother's improvements in public schools in Texas, particularly about the progress of minority students, and questioned Gore's record on education. "What has Al Gore done as vice president?" Bush asked.

    State Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, quickly followed Bush with his own news conference to defend Gore. The Tallahassee chapter of the National Organization for Women released a scathing news release criticizing George W. Bush's "abysmal record on the issues women and people of color are about," including his stance against abortion.

    In all, the day's events signaled a new intensity as the presidential race heads into Labor Day weekend and Election Day looms closer. Since the summer political conventions, most polls show Gore in a statistical tie with Bush or slightly ahead. The race for Florida's 25 electoral votes is tight and aggressive.

    Gore showed up Monday in what some might consider enemy territory: Jeb Bush won the Governor's Mansion in 1998, and Republicans have taken over the state House and Senate.

    At the same time, Tallahassee is still a state worker and public university town, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 among Leon County registered voters. Leon County has consistently voted against the Bush family, supporting Bill Clinton over George Bush in the 1992 presidential election; the late Gov. Lawton Chiles over Jeb Bush in the 1994 gubernatorial race; and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay over Jeb Bush in the 1998 governor's race.

    With some 2.7-million Floridians on Medicare, Gore had an audience open to listening on Monday.

    After flying into town, his first stop was Baker's Pharmacy across from Florida A&M University, the state's historically black public university.

    There, Gore and his wife talked to 82-year-old Myrtle Jennings, who spends $207 a monthfor a variety of prescription drugs and some months has to make some hard decisions because of the overwhelming expense.

    "What does she do? She cuts out the pain medication (to save money)," Gore later told the crowd at the Turnbull Conference Center at Florida State University.

    "That's just wrong. That's just wrong," he said.

    Gore's Medicare prescription drug plan, estimated at $253-billion over 10 years, would cover half the cost of prescription drugs up to a $5,000 annual limit. The plan would cover all drug costs for people with incomes below 135 percent of poverty level.

    George W. Bush has indicated support for plans offered by Republicans in Congress who want to offer subsidies to insurance companies to provide drug coverage to low-income seniors. His running mate, Dick Cheney, said this weekend that the campaign will soon offer more details of its prescription drug plan.

    Despite the tales of hardship Monday, Gore's visit had its lighter moments.

    After introducing her husband, Tipper Gore gave him a quick kiss, a far cry from the passionate kiss the two shared at the Democratic National Convention.

    "All I can say is, that was a pretty short kiss," Gore complained, to the laughter of the crowd.

    Republican funds rain on Sunshine State

    WASHINGTON -- Republican Party officials last month pumped $6.1-million into Florida and eight other states, providing an early road map of where they plan to compete this fall.

    Topping the list was Florida, where the national GOP sent more than $1-million to the state party last month. The Sunshine State is in play although its governor, Jeb Bush, is a brother of the Republican presidential nominee, George W. Bush.

    Democrat Al Gore got a boost in Florida with his selection of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman's appeal is strongest among the elderly residents, many of them Jewish, who live in high-rise condos in South Florida and regularly turn out to vote.

    The Republican National Committee transferred $1.1-million to the Florida GOP in July.

    State GOP Chairman Al Cardenas said the national party was simply returning some of the money it has raised from the state's residents.

    "We've been more generous to them," Cardenas said. "We've always let them know we'd like some of it back."

    The money is especially welcome because the party has an open Senate seat to retain with the retirement of Connie Mack, and faces several competitive House races and a Legislature full of open seats because of term limits.

    The list also includes Pennsylvania and the Midwestern states, where the contest between Bush and Al Gore is likely to be decided -- Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. Also on the list are three West Coast states that have leaned Democratic in recent elections -- California, Oregon and Washington.

    - The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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