By TIM NICKENS and BILL ADAIR
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000
CHICAGO -- Al Gore and George W. Bush battled for the same territory on the ground and over the airwaves Thursday, crisscrossing the Midwest for large rallies and trading new accusations about leadership and character.
"You need to know that in this fork-in-the-road election," Gore told tens of thousands at a downtown Chicago rally, "prosperity itself is on the ballot."
At the same time, Gore began airing a new ad in Florida and other battleground states that picks apart Bush's record in Texas on health care and the environment. The 30-second spot suggests that the Texas governor would threaten Social Security and jeopardize the nation's economic prosperity.
"On Nov. 7 ask yourself . . . Is he ready to lead America?" the Gore ad asks.
Gore aides defended the campaign's most direct attack yet on whether Bush is prepared to be president.
Chris Lehane, Gore's campaign spokesman, said recent comments by Bush on foreign affairs, tax cuts and Social Security indicate that Bush is "un-ready to be president."
But Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, said the ad reflects Gore's desperation.
"If all of those things were true," she said, "he would be former Gov. Bush."
The Gore ad counters a Bush ad already on the air that questions the vice president's truthfulness. The Republican's ad shows Gore pledging during a primary debate that he has always told the truth, then ends with a single word on the screen: "Really?"
Meantime, the Republican Party of Florida has sent out a mailing that also questions Gore's veracity. "Florida Newspapers say Al Gore has a problem telling the truth," the headline on the mailing says.
Bush is raising doubts about Gore on the campaign trail.
"You can't lead by scaring," said Bush, who drew more than 15,000 for an outdoor rally late Thursday afternoon at the College of DuPage in the western Chicago suburbs before flying to Milwaukee.
Although they weren't directly mentioned, references to President Clinton and the impeachment filled the fall air.
Bush was introduced by former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, who praised the Texas governor and his running mate, Dick Cheney, as "men of high character and dignity who will return honor and respect and dignity to the White House."
The Texas governor ended his speech with another reference to President Clinton's impeachment. He talked of parents who bring their children to meet him and say, "Don't ever let us down. Don't ever let us down again."
With the race still tight, Gore and Bush focused so closely Thursday on the Midwest that they missed each other in Chicago by only a few hours. Bush was in suburban St. Louis earlier Thursday; Gore was to land in Kansas City early today.
When the Texas governor landed at the St. Louis airport, his motorcade drove right by Gore running mate Joseph Lieberman's campaign plane. Bush smiled from his car and held up three fingers for "W."
Both Illinois and Missouri were won by Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and by Bush's father in 1988. But polls show Bush slightly ahead in the race for Missouri's 11 electoral votes, although the state is still considered a toss-up. Gore enjoys a slightly larger lead in Illinois for the state's 22 electoral votes, although the margin is more narrow than Democrats would like.
Bush and Gore continue to fight over issues such as Social Security, Medicare and tax cuts. The Texas governor defended his proposal to let younger workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes in private investment accounts instead of the Social Security trust fund.
Gore describes the proposal is irresponsible and contends it would lead to a cut in existing benefits for seniors. Bush said higher taxes or benefit cuts would certainly come without his plan.
"There are thousands of younger workers who understand if our government does not think differently, they're either going to have huge payroll tax increases or face reductions in benefits," Bush said in a rally in an arena in suburban St. Louis.
But he also misspoke about the nature of Social Security.
"They want the federal government controlling the Social Security like it's some kind of federal program," Bush said of the nation's most popular entitlement. "You see, it's your money not the government's money. You ought to be able to invest it like you see fit."
Hughes later said Bush was trying to say that younger workers would be able to better manage their own money in private investment accounts.
In Chicago, Gore attacked Bush's record on health care and the environment. He repeated the statement he is running in campaign ads about Houston's air pollution, which once ranked as the nation's worst.
"You don't want to see the Chicago skyline look like the Houston skyline," Gore said. "We want a clean environment!"
He said voters have a choice between continued economic good times or Bush's big tax cuts that could return the nation to big budget deficits.
But the broader purpose of the television ads and the campaign rallies of both campaigns are to paint the opponent as unfit to be president.
As Bush talked again Thursday of trusting people rather than government and pledged to uphold the dignity of the office, he reminded supporters that Gore supported "Hillary-care" -- the Clinton administration's failed attempt to reform the health care system in 1993.
He subtly reinforced his message that Gore is a creature of government and that he has other experiences to draw on. Before introducing longtime St. Louis Cardinals announcer Jack Buck, the former part-owner of the Texas Rangers said, "Some of you all may actually know that I had a life before politics -- if you know what I mean."
At a boisterous rally at Chicago's Daley Plaza, Gore pleaded with the crowd to vote in Tuesday's election and suggested Bush is captive of special interests.
"You have the power!" Gore shouted. Tuesday "is dignity day! It is the day when special interests tremble! They hold their breath and they hope their smoke screen obscures what the choice is!"
The lunchtime crowd had a mix of sweatshirts, union jackets and business suits.
Among the signs in the crowd was one that said "Al Gore is no more. He will accomplish more."
At a speech Thursday morning at a junior college in Scranton, Pa., Gore emphasized his differences with Bush on tax cuts, education and HMOs. He attacked the Texas governor's proposal to give federal tuition vouchers to students in low-performing schools.
"My opponent's plan for private school vouchers could take more money out of public schools," Gore said. "We need to use our prosperity to raise up our public schools and not abandon our public schools."
Countered Bush: "There's an achievement gap in our schools, and we ain't seen nothin' yet."
Gore answered Bush's criticism that the vice president's prescription drug proposal amounts to the creation of a government-run HMO. The Bush campaign distributed an over-the-top chart, with a maze of paths like those on a child's board game, to illustrate the bureaucracy he believes Gore's plan would create.
"Here's the first thing you need to know about my HMO reform plan: HMOs are against it. The nurses and doctors are for it."
About the only development that slowed the Bush campaign Thursday were the campaign airplane's brakes. A problem with one of eight brakes delayed Bush's flight from St. Louis to Chicago by about 30 minutes. The development was immediately broadcast on CNN, but Bush aides and reporters traded jokes about whether everyone would survive with one brake fewer.
"The way this plane lands," Hughes laughed, clapping her hands together to symbolize the hard landings. "Boom."
Bush campaigns in Michigan, another swing state today. Tentative plans call for him to land in Jacksonville on Saturday night, then campaign in Central Florida Sunday.
"We're not taking anything for granted," Hughes said of the unexpectedly close contest for Florida's 25 electoral votes. "That's why we're going back there."