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Both sides spend a weekend stumping in the sunshine

Bush and Gore will crisscross the state as they duke it out for Florida's 25 electoral votes.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 7, 2000


This is New Hampshire without snow.

Just as presidential candidates tripped over each other months ago in the first primary state, Al Gore and George W. Bush are spending so much time in Florida in the final weeks before the general election that they could share an airplane.

Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman charmed several thousand admirers at a noon rally Friday at a downtown Orlando park, hamming it up with their wives and pledging to protect Social Security, Medicare and middle-class values.

Just before dusk, Bush landed at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and was greeted by a rainbow as he and his wife got off their campaign plane. First thing this morning, the Texas governor and his younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, will talk with voters about prescription drugs for seniors and Medicare reform at Pasco-Hernando Community College in New Port Richey. Then they will fly across the state to a rally in Melbourne.

And by Sunday night, Gore is expected to return to Longboat Key for two days of preparations for the second presidential debate. The next debate will be Wednesday at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The candidates are fawning over Florida for reasons other than the sun and surf. With 25 electoral votes, the state is the largest prize still up for grabs in the tightest presidential race in perhaps 40 years. Friday was Gore's 10th trip to Florida since mid March and Bush's seventh.

"This state is the key to the election," Gore told the overflow crowd at Orlando's Lake Eola park, "and Central Florida is the key to the election."

The two presidential candidates covered rhetorical territory on Friday that is as familiar to them as Florida airports.

Gore renewed his attacks on Bush's proposed $1.3-trillion tax cut and the Texas governor's plans for Social Security and Medicare. Bush brushed away the numbers, contended the Clinton administration has failed to deliver on some of its promises and questioned the vice president's credibility.

"Voters are going to have to draw their own conclusions about somebody who seems to have a consistent pattern of exaggerating," Bush said. "I think the man is prone to exaggeration, at least it appeared that way during the debate."

As a parting shot, Bush noted that the Clinton administration already was in contact with Russian leaders about the crisis in the Balkans before Tuesday's debate. When Bush suggested during the debate that Russian leaders could help force Slobodan Milosevic out of Yugoslavia, Gore dismissed it.

"Either he didn't know what the president was doing, or he did know what the president was doing and wasn't willing to share that with the American people," Bush said.

Gore campaign officials said the vice president had been aware that President Clinton was in touch with Russian leaders over the crisis in Yugoslavia before the debate. A White House spokesman said Clinton and Gore agreed that Russia should not mediate the dispute in Yugoslavia, although Bush aides said that was not the Texas governor's suggestion.

In Orlando, Al and Tipper Gore praised Lieberman's performance in his debate with Bush running mate Dick Cheney on Thursday night. The vice presidential debate was widely regarded as a more engaging discussion of the issues than Gore and Bush managed two nights earlier.

"Superman! Batman! Lieberman!," Tipper Gore shouted.

Gore said the Texas governor's proposal to let younger workers invest part of their payroll taxes in private investment accounts instead of Social Security would "bankrupt Social Security in a single generation."

"The stock market can be a good investment," the vice president said, "but we don't want to take your safety net program and put that at risk."

Gore said his proposal, which would provide matching money for private contributions to new tax-free retirement accounts, would offer an incentive to save "not at the expense of Social Security but on top of Social Security."

Bush counters that his Social Security proposal is financially viable and will help younger workers earn greater returns while still preserving the entitlement program.

The Orlando crowd included a mix of ages and backgrounds, from retirees to young parents with children, from classes of elementary students to teachers and union workers.

"George Bush scared me," said Ron Jaffe, a 36-year-old Orlando computer consultant and a Democrat, of Tuesday's debate. "He didn't seem to instill much confidence. He definitely was not specific."

He and other Gore supporters said they trust the vice president more than Bush to keep the economy humming.

"This is Boom Town USA," said Rick Fite, a 38-year-old real estate salesman in Orlando and a registered independent.

Fite's wife, Corinne, said she also is concerned about the environment and education. She credits the Clinton administration with trying to reduce class sizes. But she echoed her husband's concerns about the economy and recalled the economic recession under former President George Bush.

"President Bush got voted out for a reason, and his son would lead us down the same path," she said.

Others mentioned their concern about the cost of prescription drugs for seniors. Although few could cite specifics about either candidate's proposals, they said Gore would do better at reducing drug costs.

"I took care of my mother until she passed away, and all she had was Social Security," said Dottie Deister, a retiree who rose at 4:45 a.m. in Ormond Beach and took a 90-minute bus ride to see Gore and Lieberman. "George W. is just not mature enough. He doesn't have the experience."

At times Gore and Lieberman sounded like they were the Democratic ticket for governor of Florida than for president. Lieberman talked of economic trends in Central Florida. He joked that at a rally at a Fort Lauderdale union hall, one wall was plastered with signs featuring only his wife's first name: Hadassah.

"I called her and said, "You're getting to be like Madonna,' " Lieberman said.

Gore expressed concern for flood victims in Miami-Dade County and tried to remember how many times his family had been to Disney World and other Central Florida attractions.

"This," he said, "is a magic place."

That may be one statement from the vice president that Bush would not challenge.

"I'm always glad to come back to Florida," the Texas governor said. "It's good country down here."

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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