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To pull ahead and stay there

Al Gore warns Floridians that George W. Bush can't be trusted with the environment or Social Security.

By ANGELA MOORE and BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000


TAMPA -- Al Gore teamed up with Jimmy Buffett on Wednesday to lure thousands of people to downtown Tampa and then tore in to George W. Bush for his "Social Insecurity" plan and questionable environmental record.

It was the end of a one-day swing through Central Florida, whose concentration of undecided voters in a big swing state has proven irresistible to both men in the closing days of this close campaign.

How many in the crowd were there to see Buffett or to hear the man fighting to be the next president was unclear. But the excitement in the air was evident in the cheers from the crowd.

The day had started before dawn in Orlando with policy speeches and ended 80 miles to the west at Lykes Gaslight Square Park. Backed by local and state politicians such as Sen. Bob Graham, U.S. Senate candidate Bill Nelson, state Senate candidate Kathy Castor and Hillsborough County Commissioner Thomas Scott, Gore echoed the environmental message that Buffett had pushed between songs moments before.

Both men said that environmental issues should be especially important in the Tampa Bay area, a place surrounded by natural beauty.

"You've got a good thing going here," Gore told the cheering, dancing crowd. "Let's make it even better with smart growth and livable communities."

While congratulating Floridians for living in such a beautiful state, he criticized Bush for environmental damage in Texas and warned about what might happen to the Sunshine State if Bush becomes president.

Houston has the worst air quality of any city in the nation, Gore said. "As someone once said, "Houston, we have a problem.'

"The environment has been my cause all of my public life. Pollution must never be allowed to be the price of our prosperity. . . . If we do things right, we can build an even cleaner environment and an even stronger economy at the same time."

Gore warned the crowd that since Bush supports drilling for oil in the environmentally sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, he also could decide to support drilling off the coast of Florida. Bush has said that he will not support any new drilling leases in Florida.

Before Buffett sang a single note, he said that Bush and running mate Dick Cheney could not be trusted with protecting Florida's coast from offshore drilling.

"Duh, they're in the oil business," he said, before launching into We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About.

Buffett, a dedicated Democrat, sang just a few blocks away eight years ago for Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas going up against the incumbent President George Bush, George W.'s dad. That concert also drew thousands, especially when Clinton decided to delay his speech so Buffett could keep playing, drawing downtown office workers out to the park instead of to their cars and commutes.

The crowd gathered Wednesday included curious office workers in power suits, Democratic political junkies with their handmade signs and unbridled enthusiasm, and the die-hard Buffett fans in Hawaiian shirts, straw hats and flower leis.

"Gore is a close second (to Buffett)," said Jason Bowman, 22, a student at the University of Florida. Bowman drove to Tampa from Gainesville and met Josh, his 18-year-old brother, and Andrew Mello, 21, a friend from Cocoa Beach.

Once in Tampa, they met two brothers from Phoenix, Ariz. Justin Contre, 18, and Jonathan Contre, 21, actually booked a last-minute flight and flew into Tampa Wednesday afternoon just to see Buffett.

"Yep, just this," Jonathan Contre said, pulling his boarding pass out of his pocket for proof. "It's Buffett unplugged!"

The Gore camp will be happy to know Wednesday's event won them at least one vote.

"I was pretty undecided before," Jason Bowman said. "A free Buffett concert has pretty much locked my vote up."

Spencer James, 46, and his mother Ethel Preston, 77, didn't know anything about this Jimmy Buffett fellow. In their neighborhood north of Ybor City, life's a little too rough to be singing about kicking back on the beach with a margarita. But "lifetime Democrats" James and Preston were incredibly excited that Gore was in their town.

"This is absolutely electrifying," James said. "We had plenty more to do today, but nothing is as important as this. We'll be at the polls before noontime on Election Day."

Preston said she supported Gore's efforts to protect Social Security.

Earlier in the day, at a speech in Kissimmee, Gore called Social Security a "sacred trust" and attacked Bush's plan to divert some Social Security money to private investments.

"Gov. Bush is promising to take a trillion dollars out of Social Security, and he's promising it to younger workers for investments in private accounts. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?" said Gore, standing before an American flag.

But Gore said Bush has promised that same trillion dollars to senior citizens to pay their current benefits. Gore noted that the American Academy of Actuaries, an independent economic group, has said Bush's plan would "lead to catastrophic results."

However, Gore said, Bush "rejected their premise."

Gore paused.

"Which premise? Addition or subtraction?"

Bush's plan "would turn Social Security into a grab-bag where everybody is out for himself," Gore said. "You might call it Social Insecurity. And that's wrong for our values."

He warned that middle-aged people could suffer from Bush's plan because it diverts so much money to risky private investments.

"By draining trillions away from the trust fund, his plan could make Social Security bankrupt just as today's 45-year-olds are starting to receive their first check," Gore said.

Gore said this week that Florida is "the key" to winning the election.

It has 25 electoral votes, the most of any state still considered up for grabs. It has usually voted Republican in presidential races, with Democrats winning the state in only four of the last 13 presidential elections. But Florida has also been a bellwether state, picking the winner in every election since 1948 except 1960 and 1992.

"No Republican has won the election in the post-air-conditioning era without winning Florida," said Chris Lahane, a Gore spokesman.

The battle in Florida is still extremely close. Although news media polls show Gore leading by as much as 12 points or Bush leading by four, Gore's own polls show him up by three to four points.

Voter turnout will be crucial for Gore. His latest poll shows he leads by only one point if turnout of black voters is low.

At a special appearance at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice, he reminded the players how important their vote is to the election.

"Incidentally, those of you who are registered to vote in the state of Florida, it may come down to you," Gore said.

Gore became an honorary member of the team when Coach Tony Dungy presented him with a Bucs jersey, with his name and the number 1. The vice president liked the number.

"I used to get all these jerseys with No. 2 on them," Gore said. "It's nice to get No. 1."

- News researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story.

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