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    Gore has a new task: attack Bush with smile

    The vice president leaves Florida today for the second presidential debate tonight.

    TIMES
    POLITICAL
    EDITOR
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    NICKENS
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    By TIM NICKENS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 11, 2000


    LONGBOAT KEY -- After three days of sun, sand and debate prep, Vice President Al Gore flies to North Carolina today for another debate with Texas Gov. George W. Bush and another mission.

    The Democrat is expected to counter the Republican's escalating attacks on his truthfulness, emphasize his education proposals, turn the spotlight toward Bush's record in Texas -- and do it with a friendly smile instead of an exasperated sigh.

    Tonight's debate at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., is the second of three presidential debates and offers a more relaxed format than the first encounter. Instead of standing behind lecterns on opposite sides of the stage, Bush and Gore will sit close together around a U-shaped table with moderator Jim Lehrer in the middle.

    That format was used in the debate between the running mates last week. The discussion between Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joseph Lieberman was widely viewed as more informative and conversational than the debate between Bush and Gore.

    While overnight polls after last week's presidential debate indicated most voters believed Gore performed better than Bush, the Texas governor has moved into a lead or statistical tie in more recent national polls.

    In Florida, three opinion polls taken over roughly the same period late last week also show a statistical dead heat for the state's 25 electoral votes. A St. Petersburg Times poll by Schroth & Associates put Gore at 46 percent and Bush at 43 percent, a Florida Republican Party poll by the Tarrance Group put Bush at 46 percent and Gore at 42 percent, and a Mason-Dixon Opinion Research poll put Bush at 47 percent and Gore at 44 percent.

    "It's been tight for the last 60 days," Gov. Jeb Bush, the Texas governor's younger brother, said Tuesday. "We're in a close race. What gives me comfort is we have a great get-out-the-vote effort with literally hundreds of volunteers. There's a lot of enthusiasm."

    But Democrats are encouraged by the poll numbers and are signaling that Gore will compete for Florida until the end.

    The Democratic National Committee is spending $850,000 to air a new ad in most Florida markets starting this week that attacks Bush's environmental record. It rotates scenes of the Everglades with belching smokestacks and polluted water in Texas. The ad says that Gore has been working to restore the Everglades while Bush allows polluting Texas companies to voluntarily lower emissions.

    While Bush signed a law last year that makes it mandatory for electric utilities to reduce emissions, other private industries are still under voluntary reductions.

    The new DNC ad will be seen in every market but GOP-dominated Fort Myers and Jacksonville. Combine that with a Gore campaign ad, and Democrats will be matching TV ad spending at least temporarily with Bush and the Republican Party, at about $1.3-million per week.

    Tad Devine, a chief Gore strategist, said Gore has been able to stay even in Florida despite being outspent on TV by more than 2-to-1. Bush and the Republicans have spent more than $8.2-million on TV in Florida since July 21, compared with $3-million for Gore and the Democrats.

    "I suspect we will continue to maintain a substantial presence," Devine said. "If you want to compete here, you have to make a commitment" of roughly $1-million a week in television advertising.

    Meanwhile, tonight's debate may focus more on character and credibility than the maze of numbers about tax cuts and Social Security. The themes may be subtle, though, because neither candidate wants to appear to be the attacker.

    Since the debate, Bush has hammered away at Gore's truthfulness. His campaign has contended that Gore stretched facts during the first debate, particularly his story about a 15-year-old Sarasota girl being forced to stand in a class because of overcrowding. Bush also pointed out that the Clinton administration already was talking to Russian leaders about trouble in the Balkans when the Texas governor suggested enlisting them during the debate and Gore dismissed it.

    "I think the man is prone to exaggeration; at least it appeared that way during the debate," Bush said Friday at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

    Democrats have circulated news accounts that indicate the Sarasota girl's school was overcrowded. Gore officials also say Bush was suggesting more involvement by the Russians in the Balkans than the Clinton administration pursued.

    But questions continue to be raised about Gore's tendency to exaggerate.

    Former White House political consultant Dick Morris, writing in the New York Post, said Gore exaggerates because he "is deeply insecure about his ability, stature and credentials."

    "He feels that he needs to go the extra mile to burnish his image even if he has to make things up," Morris said. "He is just not content with what is. It never seems to be enough. . . . This insecurity ravages him and propels him to a neurotic propensity to exaggerate even when he is sure to be caught."

    Gore seemed to be speaking more carefully Tuesday at a forum on education at Manatee Community College in Bradenton. Several times he qualified statistics with, "I'm told." When he answered a question about different learning skills, he acknowledged, "I don't know much about this."

    Meanwhile, Bush also finds his statements increasingly under scrutiny by the Gore campaign and the media. He was wrong during last week's debate when he contended Gore was outspending him. He also had difficulty adding up the numbers as he explained his proposed tax cuts on Saturday in New Port Richey.

    A portion of Gore's Web site will highlight Bush's goofs, and Democrats are releasing daily "Bush bloopers."

    Bush's record in Texas also is expected to come under more criticism this week from the Democrats.

    Gore may seize an opportunity tonight to question Bush's record in education or the environment in Texas, where Lieberman plans to campaign this week.

    "Come on down," Bush said Tuesday. "We welcome the talk about the Texas record."

    On Tuesday, though, the Texas governor was in Gore's back yard.

    Like Florida, the vice president's home state of Tennessee is unexpectedly close. Bush appeared before a large crowd there with Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, a Democrat, and other elected officials who have crossed party lines to support him.

    "I think what's moving the numbers in George W.'s favor is his strength of character and personality," Crawford said, adding that tonight's more intimate format could work to Bush's advantage.

    "I think Gore kind of hurt himself with the fudging. A lot of people don't like that."

    In Bradenton, Gore touted his education proposals, which include raising a tax credit for college tuition to $10,000. He answered more than a dozen questions from nearly 100 community college faculty members and students and nearby high school students and teachers.

    Gore said he agrees with Bush that schools must be held accountable for student performance, and both candidates would require various types of testing. But he contended that Bush's proposed tax cuts are so large that the Republican would be unable to spend enough money on public schools. The vice president wants to lower class sizes, hire 100,000 new teachers and enable school districts to issue tax-free bonds for construction.

    "My plan starts with new accountability," Gore said, "but it doesn't end there."

    - Times Washington bureau chief Sara Fritz and staff writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this report, which used material from the Associated Press.

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