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With race tight, Bush turns to personal attacks on Gore

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2000


SCRANTON, Pa. -- The leaves have not started turning colors yet in the Lehigh Valley and the calendar says it's still summer, but the signs of fall are all around.

There is frost on the ground in places, the temperature hovers around 40 degrees at daybreak, and George W. Bush is on the attack.

The Texas governor, who visits Pinellas County Monday, pledged that he would bring a different tone to the presidential campaign. He has forgotten that promise now that the race is tight and Election Day is less than two months away.

Bush is under more pressure than he has been since the primaries, and he has fallen back on a familiar strategy as he tries to regain his footing.

He is portraying Al Gore as a man who can't be trusted, who breaks promises and parses words. And, oh yeah, let's not forget guilt by association. All Bush has to do is mention Bill Clinton's name to get that point across.

The substantive issues were Medicare, national defense and the budget surplus as Bush criss-crossed swing states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan on his chartered 757 last week. But those were Trojan horses carrying an assault on Gore's character and integrity.

Medicare?

Bush says Clinton and Gore promised reform in 1992 and 1996 and didn't deliver on health care or a prescription drug benefit.

National defense?

"Let's get something straight," Bush said at the American Legion's national convention in Milwaukee, where Gore was criticized by veterans for skipping. "These are not criticisms of the military. These are criticisms of the current commander-in-chief and the vice president."

Tax cuts and spending?

Bush said Clinton and Gore promised middle-class tax cuts and did not come through. By the end of the week, Bush had even turned Gore's own slogan ("We're for the people. He's for the powerful.") back on the vice president.

"Mr. Vice President," Bush said in Indianapolis, "you are the powerful."

There are substantive differences between Bush and Gore. Bush wants bigger tax cuts, private investment of a portion of taxes that now flow into Social Security and a prescription drug benefit that relies on private insurers and competition. Gore has more faith in the government to deliver programs ranging from better health care to better schools.

In an attempt to counter Gore's populist message, Bush emphasizes that he is the one who has more trust in average Americans. He would let them decide how to invest their retirement money, choose a Medicare plan with the coverages they want and pick a private school for their children if the public school is inadequate.

"Which candidate trusts us to make decisions about our lives, our families, our futures?" Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge asked at a Republican fundraiser in Scranton.

But Bush is spreading a message beyond describing his policy differences with Gore. That's why he spent a good part of the week picking a fight over debates, a dispute few voters care about.

The Texas governor, whose debating skills and experience fall short of Gore's, created a diversion by arguing that Gore went back on his word to appear in debates beyond those proposed by a bipartisan commission.

"All of this double talk of "no controlling legal authority' and "it doesn't matter what the definition of is, is,' " Bush said, reciting two infamous lines from Gore and Clinton. "That's going to end with Bush-Cheney."

Wednesday afternoon in an airport hanger in Indianapolis: "Evidently "anyplace, any time, anywhere' doesn't mean that. I guess it depends on what the definition of anyplace, any time, anywhere is."

That play on words sounds familiar to anyone who followed the Clinton impeachment scandal. Yet Bush's taunts didn't work, as Gore refused to budge until Bush accepts the debates proposed by a nonpartisan commission.

It's possible that the whole thing is a calculated gamble by the Bush campaign, designed to cut the number of formal commission debates from three to two. If it works, the price was too high.

The case can be made that Gore brought some of these attacks on himself. He has been known to exaggerate or mischaracterize his accomplishments. And his various explanations about his role in the 1996 fundraising excesses are hardly profiles in character.

But Bush's cutting rhetoric illustrates he also is willing to adjust his approach when he feels threatened. He hasn't gotten this personal since February, after he lost to John McCain in the New Hampshire primary and absolutely had to win South Carolina.

More adjustments are coming.

Even Republicans are acknowledging that Bush's attempt to right himself after a difficult month isn't working. The personal shots over debates and the sarcastic ad about Gore's fundraising at the Buddhist temple are falling flat.

Bush defended his economic plan, offered new details about a prescription drug benefit and spent two days on military defense last week. But all of that was obscured by his unsubtle shots at Gore and his answers to criticism of his own campaign.

Maybe a kinder, gentler Bush will show up Monday in Pinellas.

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