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Bush assault intensifies as Gore closes in

Bush casts Gore as a politician who lacks conviction and stresses his reputation for shifting positions.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 2000

NAPERVILLE, ILL. -- George W. Bush kicked off the fall campaign Monday with a few clouds over his head.

The sky darkened over the Texas governor and a large Labor Day crowd during a midmorning parade through this tidy downtown 35 miles west of downtown Chicago. The mist did not turn into rain, but the scene symbolized the state of the presidential campaign.

With Vice President Al Gore now tying Bush or moving ahead in opinion polls, there is a darker edge to the Republican's normally sunny stump speech.

Bush stepped up his attacks on Gore in a pre-parade speech outside Naperville North High School that drew a large, friendly crowd in the hundreds. He emphasized Gore's reputation for changing positions as he contended that the Democrat engages in double talk.

In an unusual departure, Bush repeated one of Gore's now-famous defenses of the Clinton administration's 1996 fundraising.

"It's time to elect some folks who have good common sense," Bush said. "It's time to get rid of all of those words like "no controlling legal authority.' "

The Texas governor turned to the remark at a time when the Republican National Committee is airing an ad in Florida and elsewhere that reminds voters of Gore's appearance at a 1996 fundraiser at the Buddhist temple. Bush has called that commercial "tongue in cheek," but Democrats contend that he is now violating his pledge not to engage in personal attacks.

After visiting Illinois, Bush flew to Michigan to appear at the Romeo Peach Festival before landing Monday night in Pennsylvania. All three are key states, filled with swing voters who could turn the election.

The debate over debates also continued Monday.

Over the weekend, Bush proposed three debates. One would be on Sept. 12 on a special edition of the NBC's Meet the Press. Another would be on Oct. 3 on CNN with Larry King. Only the third, Oct. 17 in St. Louis, would be one of the three formal debates proposed by the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

Gore has rejected Bush's proposal, arguing that fewer voters would watch. He says he would agree to it only after Bush agrees to all three debates proposed by the commission. That prompted Bush on Monday to remind listeners that Gore once said he would debate Bush, "any time, anywhere."

"All of a sudden the words about "any time, anywhere' don't mean anything," Bush said, sparking chants from the crowd of "No More Gore." "When we tell you something, we mean it."

That apparently also applies to asides about journalists.

On a day when Bush talked of straight talk, he caused a stir among the media by criticizing a New York Times reporter in an aside to vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney. As the pair stood on stage, Bush pointed out New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, and his remark was picked up by television microphones.

"There's Adam Clymer, major league a--h---," Bush told Cheney.

"Oh yeah, yeah. Big time," Cheney agreed.

Tapes of the remarks were replayed again and again on media buses. Within an hour, the comment also had been picked up by the Gore campaign. Bush officials said the remark was not intended to be broadcast, but there were no apologies.

"There's been a series of articles that the governor has felt have been very unfair," said communications director Karen Hughes.

Bush has long enjoyed a friendly relationship with many of the national reporters who regularly travel with his campaign. Monday's minor incident reflected that the close race has created more tension and demonstrated how both campaigns are more willing than ever to jump on the other for the smallest transgressions.

The Republican's stepped-up effort to cast Gore as a politician who lacks conviction and changes his mind resonated with the Republican crowd.

"They didn't have to reinvent Bush 10 times," said Cathy Jones, a 49-year-old homemaker who has never voted for a Democrat for president.

But there are concerns about the race even in Republican, comfortable Naperville, where Bush marched down Jefferson Avenue and turned right onto Main Street between the Starbucks Coffee and the sprawling Eddie Bauer clothier.

Paul O'Connor, a sales manager for a wireless phone company and a Republican precinct committeeman, said local Republicans tell him they are concerned about the trend they see in national polls that show Gore surging.

"It's going to be a very tight race, but he will win," O'Connor said. "If he doesn't, I have to take a lot of people to lunch."

Bush hit on issues that are more popular with Republicans than swing voters, including his proposed $1.3-trillion tax cut over 10 years. He held up four $1 bills, representing the $4-trillion budget surplus, and divided them up.

Two went to shore up Social Security. Another was earmarked for beefing up the military, improving education and other needs. The fourth dollar represented tax cuts, and he handed it to a member of the crowd.

"I want the working families to put that money in your pocket," Bush said. "This campaign trusts you. It trusts the American people."

In contrast, he said, Gore's targeted tax cuts of about $500-billion over 10 years would put more of the decisions about family spending into the hands of government bureaucrats.

For the past two weeks, Bush tried to focus on education but instead found himself forced to defend his proposed tax cuts and fend off questions about his prescription drug proposal. Gore would offer a prescription drug benefit through Medicare that would cost more than $250-billion over 10 years.

Bush has a different plan that relies heavily on private insurers that would offer a menu of coverages from which to choose, but there have been few details. He plans to flesh out his plan today in a major speech in Pennsylvania.

"They're still talking about it in 2000," Bush told the crowd at the Peach Festival in Michigan, referring to the prescription drug benefits. "They have failed to lead."

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