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M, as in 'Mom,' works phones for W in Florida

By ALICIA CALDWELL and TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 17, 2000


When the going gets tough, the tough ... turn to their moms?

That is what happened over the weekend in the presidential campaign as Texas Gov. George W. Bush tried to gain an edge on Vice President Al Gore in Florida.

Bush's mother, popular former first lady Barbara Bush, recorded a one-minute message asking voters to support her son.

The Republican Party of Florida used the pitch in a phone bank Sunday and Monday, calling "many, many thousands" of older Floridians in the Tampa Bay area and around the state, said Leo DiBenigno, spokesman for Bush's Florida campaign.

Of course, Bush doesn't have what you'd call an ordinary mom. She had a best-selling book and public opinion poll ratings to die for. And she still draws cheers at public appearances.

Mother Bush tells Floridians about her son's position on senior issues, DiBenigno said, and phone calls were directed to older residents of all political parties, not just Republicans.

"We feel that Mrs. Bush certainly can speak to all seniors," DiBenigno said.

Not everyone appreciated the effort.

Lalia Hart, 88, a registered Democrat who lives in the Lakewood area of St. Petersburg, got a call Sunday.

"I am a bona fide voter from the time of 21 and I have lived here 50 years and I have never had the mother of a candidate call me and I do not appreciate it," she said. "What George senior is trying to do is form a dynasty of Bush, Bush and Bush. That is just a little too much."

Despite the popularity of Bush's parents, particularly among Republicans, the Texas governor risks alienating some voters by enlisting their help. His father stirred a controversy earlier this year in New Hampshire when he referred to his son as "this boy of mine."

"I don't think she should be involved in this kind of stuff," said Betty Clark of St. Petersburg, a 68-year-old Republican who plans to vote for Gore.

Gore and Bush are statistically tied in Florida, according to recent polls, and with Florida's 25 electoral votes on the line in what looks to be a very close November election, the stakes are high.

A St. Petersburg Times poll earlier this month of 600 likely Florida voters showed Gore with a slight lead over Bush at 46 to 43 percent. However, a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points makes the race a statistical dead heat.

Republicans called upon the enduring popularity of Barbara Bush to discuss such issues as Social Security, Medicare and prescription drug coverage. In part, she said:

"Hello, this is Barbara Bush. I'm calling to tell you about my son George W's plan to protect Social Security. I know I have a mother's bias, but I know my son and his integrity. When he proposes prescription drug coverage for seniors, modernizing Medicare, saving Social Security and preserving its benefits for current retirees with no reductions, no changes, he means it."

She added that she is angered by attacks from other politicians that are meant to scare seniors. This would seem to be a preemptive strike against any last-minute negative campaigning against her son.

The phone calls were conducted in conjunction with a mailing to Florida seniors that featured Mrs. Bush and touched on some of the same issues, DiBenigno said.

Nationwide, it dovetails with the "W Stands for Women" tour featuring Laura Bush, the candidate's wife; Barbara Bush; and Lynne Cheney, wife of Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney.

The women will conduct a bus tour with stops in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and speak about education, health care, personal safety and economic security.

"Folks listen to Tipper and they listen to Haddassah and they listen to George P. and they listen to Gore's daughter," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said, referring to the wives of Al Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman, and to Bush's nephew. "Everyone wants to pitch in. People shouldn't vote based on getting a call from Barbara, but that's one of the things they should consider."

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