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Bush calls up reinforcements

George W. Bush, losing ground in the polls to Al Gore, uses Gulf War heroes to back his view of a weakened military.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2000


DAYTON, Ohio -- Under fire for losing his lead and his focus, George W. Bush brought in the big guns from his father's era.

Gulf War heroes Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell stood ramrod straight with the Texas governor Thursday at Wright State University, bolstering Bush's argument that the treatment of the military has deteriorated under the Clinton administration.

"We've had a draconian downgrade in our armed forces over the years without recognizing that we've done a pretty lousy job of predicting who our next enemy is going to be," Schwarzkopf said before a cheering crowd of several hundred. "We have someone who is going to step up and has clearly recognized the problems."

Meanwhile, Bush boldly hinted that Powell would become part of his administration.

The endorsements from the retired generals who served under Bush's father came on a day when Bush needed some reinforcements. His advisers acknowledged they are retooling the campaign amid new opinion polls showing Vice President Al Gore is tied or leading, and criticism from fellow Republicans that his campaign is drifting and picking the wrong fights.

In a swing through the Midwest this week, Bush has jumped from prescription drugs to national defense while introducing a local family at nearly every stop to promote his tax cuts. At the same time, Bush appears to be losing a battle he picked with Gore over the format and timing of debates.

His week got off to a bad start on Labor Day, when microphones picked up his off-color remark about a New York Times reporter. It got worse Thursday with a series of news reports quoting Republican governors and members of Congress expressing concern about the state of his campaign and Gore's surge.

Bush, relaxed and upbeat, told reporters outside his plane at a Detroit-area airport that he always expected a close race. He described Gore as a tough opponent and himself as the underdog, although he consistently led in opinion polls until after the Democratic National Convention last month.

The criticism from other Republicans was brushed aside.

"That's Washington," the Texas governor said. "That's people getting ready to jump out of the fox hole before the first shell is fired in Washington, D.C. But when you get out here in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania and you talk to troops on the ground, they're excited and they want to win, and they want to work."

Bush first responded to questions about possible changes in his campaign with a joke that played on Gore's use of a fashion consultant: "I may go more alpha male coming down the stretch."

But he acknowledged there will be adjustments. He may, for example, return to town meetings or group discussions as a way to better present his pitch and connect with voters.

"I'd like to be able to reach people more often in less formal settings," Bush said.

That would contrast from most of his appearances this week. Bush often delivered a short speech, sometimes little more than a greatest hits of standard sound bites, quickly shook a few hands and moved on. He also cut back on his contact with reporters, accepting only a few shouted questions when he landed at an airport.

The Bush campaign is even toying with a new campaign slogan: "Real Plans for Real People."

That echoes the strategy the Texas governor used to fight off John McCain in the primary elections, when overnight he became a "Reformer with Results."

Instead of delivering formal speeches on policy or appearing at rallies, communications director Karen Hughes said Thursday night, Bush may be appearing in coffee shops.

"We'll be looking for more settings like that," she said, "talking to people where they really live their lives."

The transformation was still conceptual Thursday.

At a short speech at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post outside Detroit, Bush offered his broadest hints yet that he would ask Powell to join his administration. Powell is widely rumored to be in line for a Cabinet position such as secretary of state if Bush wins.

"At some time I might call upon some other fine Americans to serve," Bush said as he looked toward Powell, who nodded back as the crowd applauded.

In spending most of two days this week focusing on the military, the Texas governor highlighted an issue that is dear to Republicans but is not at the top of the list of campaign issues. He also risked renewed criticism that he is relying too heavily on his father's friends instead of charting his own course.

But Powell and Schwarzkopf remain wildly popular with all sorts of voters, including Democrats and independents. Powell drew louder applause than Bush at the VFW hall outside Detroit as he backed Bush's assessment that there are signs of trouble in the military.

The retired general acknowledged that he helped the Bush administration shrink the military after the end of the Cold War. But he accused the Clinton administration of taking the reductions too far and of engaging in a game of "let's pretend."

The Democrats want to pretend that junior officers and pilots aren't leaving, that equipment is in good shape and that the armed forces aren't having trouble recruiting, he said. Powell said that Clinton has started to increase military spending in the past 18 months but that it is too late and it is time for new leadership.

"My friends, the time for pretending is over," he said, "because the ones you can't fool are the troops. The troops know it."

The Gore campaign countered with budget numbers indicating the vice president would spend more than twice as much beefing up the military as Bush. The Republican allocates $45-billion of the budget surplus to national defense, but the Democrat earmarks $100-billion for areas such as better pay and benefits.

Bush and his running mate, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, have been criticized by Democrats for contending the military is poorly prepared for battle. In his speech at the Republican National Convention last month, Bush incorrectly claimed that two of the Army's divisions are not ready for combat.

Now Bush and Cheney have adjusted their argument, emphasizing that the blame lies with the Clinton administration and not soldiers as they try to steer the debate more toward the future.

The Texas governor said he would order a review of the military structure to determine how best to prepare for a high-technology era unlike the Gulf War, when troops relied on heavy equipment. He said he would review every overseas mission to ensure that the troops are not spread too thin, although he would not say which missions he might scrap.

"There is no question in my mind today's military is the best in the world," Bush said outside Detroit, "but the function of a leader is to look down the road."

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