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    George W. Bush reaches out

    The GOP candidate motors by bus from Daytona Beach to Tampa with his brother Jeb to woo crucial Florida voters.

    By TIM NICKENS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2000


    photo
    [Times photo: Thomas Goethe]
    George W. Bush campaigns at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.
    TAMPA -- Stop by stop, the crowds grew larger, the rock music blared louder and George W. Bush hit Al Gore harder.

    A couple of thousand polite supporters showed up at a morning rally in Daytona Beach. A slightly larger, more boisterous crowd came to a midday appearance in suburban Orlando. And by the time the Bush bus tour hit the Florida State Fairgrounds Wednesday night, more than 6,000 wildly cheering fans greeted the Texas governor when his bus pulled into the darkened exhibition hall.

    "Make no mistake about it -- we are carrying Florida in November!" Bush shouted before ripping the vice president as a big-spending, government-loving creature of Washington trying to scare seniors. "We're aware of your tricks. We're aware of your politics. We know what you're fixing to do."

    The 150-mile bus trip through Florida's midsection and its timing just 13 days before the election underscore how tight the race is for the state's 25 electoral votes -- and how badly Bush needs them. He and Gore remain locked in a tight race both nationally and in Florida, and no Republican has won the presidency without winning Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

    Three new opinion polls indicate the state is still up for grabs. A poll by the American Research Group puts Gore ahead of Bush, 49 percent to 45 percent, and a New York Times/CBS News poll puts Gore at 46 percent and Bush at 42 percent. But a poll by the non-partisan Florida Voter magazine found Bush leading Gore, 46 percent to 41 percent. All three polls were taken within the last week and are considered statistical ties.

    Bush and his younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are taking nothing for granted. They urged supporters at each stop Wednesday to help with get-out-the-vote efforts and aggressively answered Gore's criticism of the Republican candidate's proposals for Social Security and a prescription drug program for seniors.

    "I've been telling my brother all day long we're going to carry the state for him," the Florida governor told a cheering Tampa crowd. "Am I right?"

    Jeb Bush's popularity seems unlikely to help his brother much. In the New York Times/CBS News poll, more than four out of five voters said their view of Jeb Bush would not affect how they voted for president.

    Gore campaign officials agree the race in Florida is close and hinges on which side turns out its supporters on Nov. 7.

    "It's going to bounce back and forth," said Gore strategist Karl Koch of the poll numbers. "If George W. Bush thought he was in good shape here, he wouldn't be riding around on a bus."

    The Bush team flew from Jacksonville to Daytona Beach Wednesday morning for a rally at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The crowd packed the gym but was fairly quiet, Bush's microphone faded in and out and the confetti guns were weak.

    The buses then headed west on Interstate 4 to Sanford in heavily Republican Seminole County, just north of Orlando, and finally to the state fairgrounds.

    At the first two stops, Arizona Sen. John McCain endorsed his former adversary -- although in Sanford he misspoke and asked voters to support the "Gore-Cheney" ticket.

    "He is fully prepared to assume the duties of the president of the United States of America," McCain said of Bush in Daytona Beach, echoing the line he used to say about himself.

    During the primaries, McCain offered a different view of Bush' preparedness and often joked about the Texas governor's lack of foreign policy experience. On Wednesday, though, the former Vietnam prisoner of war argued that Bush can be trusted more than Gore to strengthen the nation's military. He hinted that a Bush administration could have prevented the terrorist assault on the USS Cole.

    "George W. Bush and I had a spirited, enlightening, remarkable campaign," McCain said in Daytona Beach. "We came together and are together."

    Added Bush in Sanford: "We were competitors at one time this year. But I want you to know I am a better candidate because of him putting me through my paces."

    McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary with help from independent voters and the Michigan primary with help from Democrats, came along on the first two stops of the tour to try to boost Bush's appeal among those same types of voters in Florida. There are about 5-million residents in nine counties along the I-4 corridor, and about as many Republicans as Democrats. Many of them do not hesitate to cross party lines in presidential elections.

    McCain did not join the Bush brothers at the Tampa rally. A Bush spokesman said McCain had flown to Florida from the West Coast and had only committed to appear at the first two events. Two prominent Democrats who have endorsed the Texas governor, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, joined the Bush brothers on stage at the fairgrounds.

    Republicans know Bush has to build a substantial advantage over Gore in Central and North Florida to offset Gore's expected victory margin in South Florida.

    "If we discipline ourselves, we'll upset those South Floridians who have lost their minds," state Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville shouted to a cheering throng of more than 5,000 on Tuesday night in downtown Jacksonville.

    Bush drew sharp comparisons between his proposed $1.3-trillion tax cut and Gore's proposed $500-billion tax cut, which is targeted to specific areas such as health care, education and child care.

    "How many of you have hybrid electric gasoline engines in your vehicle? If you did, you get tax relief," Bush said Wednesday afternoon as he went through several specific examples of Gore's targeted tax cuts.

    "How many of you pay income taxes to the federal government?" he asked, alluding to his own proposal. "You get tax relief under our plan."

    But the Bush brothers spent much of the bus tour defending the Texas governor's proposals on Social Security and prescription drugs. About one in three likely voters in Florida are seniors, and a St. Petersburg Times poll earlier this month indicated Gore had an 11-point lead among voters older than 65.

    Bush wants to let younger workers divert a portion of their payroll taxes from Social Security into private investment accounts. He has acknowledged that could eat up $1-trillion of the expected $2.4-trillion surplus in the Social Security trust fund over the next decade. But he says there still would be enough money to guarantee older workers and retirees that their current Social Security benefits won't be cut.

    Gore disagrees and says Bush cannot deliver on promises to both groups.

    Bush suggested that taped calls paid for by the Florida Democratic Party are similar to those the Lawton Chiles campaign made against Jeb Bush in 1994. But those calls were different, because the callers lied about whom they represented and intimated that Social Security and Medicare were state rather than federal programs.

    "They're trying to say old George W. is trying to take away your check," Bush said, "and we're going to tell them loud and clear: A promise made is a promise kept for seniors."

    Bush threw around a few scary numbers himself. He contended Gore's plan to create new retirement accounts separate from Social Security would cost the government $40-trillion. The Gore campaign says that figure is inaccurate.

    He also blasted Gore's proposal to offer a prescription drug benefit through Medicare. Bush, echoing lines from a pamphlet the Republican Party recently mailed to Florida seniors, said that Gore's plan creates a "$600 access fee" and a "government-run HMO."

    Gore complains both of those characterizations are wrong. The $600 represents the total monthly premiums in about eight years; the initial premium would be $25 per month. And Gore aides say Bush also is mischaracterizing the use of pharmaceutical benefit managers, which try to negotiate the best prices on prescription drugs and are commonly used now by insurers and health maintenance organizations.

    "It quacks like an HMO," Bush countered in Daytona Beach. "He can call it a PBM, but that's government-talk for an HMO."

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