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CAMPAIGN 2000

Race for the Presidency in a New Phase

Politics: Gore campaigns on the Mississippi, while Bush stumps in Tennessee. Polls suggest a tightening contest.

August 19, 2000|JAMES GERSTENZANG and MARIA L. LaGANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PRAIRIE du CHIEN, Wis. — As Al Gore left a successful convention for a riverboat trip through the heartland and George W. Bush headed for the vice president's home state Friday, polls showed a tightening race between the presidential contenders.

Invoking Mark Twain's folksy wisdom at the start of a four-day boat and bus trip along the Mississippi River, Gore painted a positive picture of his come-from-behind campaign, as an aide handed out copies of one overnight poll showing the Democrat with a 3-point lead over his Republican rival.

"Do the right thing; you'll gratify your friends and astonish the rest," Gore told a send-off crowd in LaCrosse, Wis., paraphrasing Twain before heading off on a boat named after the writer. "The struggle . . . is really about whether or not we're going to do the right thing for the future. Open your hearts, let's claim our future and make this country what it's supposed to be."

While Gore all but ignored his competition, Bush ended a week of seclusion at his Texas ranch by blasting the Democrat--and his Thursday-night speech accepting the presidential nomination--in Gore's own backyard at a 10,000-strong Memphis, Tenn., rally, where he was flanked by massive American flags and serenaded by country music star Travis Tritt.

"As much as he tried to separate himself from the squandered opportunities of his own administration, the vice president's speech reminded us of the fundamental choice in this election," Bush declared. "Will we prolong four more years of Clinton-Gore or will we give America a fresh start?"

In an NBC News poll conducted on the last night of the Democratic convention, which ended Thursday in Los Angeles, Gore narrowly led Bush, 46% to 43%, a gap that, statistically, amounts to a tie. Another poll by Voter.com had Bush leading, 47% to 42%.

In both of the small, overnight surveys, Gore has improved his position against Bush, who has held a commanding lead throughout the summer.

While acknowledging that the race is tightening, political analysts said Friday that Gore still has a great deal of work ahead of him. Presidential candidates often get a bounce in the polls after a convention, but those improved rankings don't always last.

"He's still got to sell himself as someone who's a leader," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan, Washington-based political newsletter. "He was somewhat successful at the speech in terms of toughness . . . [but] I don't think people pay attention to the speeches at the convention."

During the four-day Los Angeles extravaganza, Rothenberg said, Gore persuaded most core Democrats, solidifying his important base.

"He has to continue to take Bush down," Rothenberg said. "Bush is coming out of the conventions with an advantage. [Gore] has to go after the Texas record hard and suck Bush into an argument over policy."

On Friday, Gore tried to do just that. He built his day on issues designed to appeal to core Democratic voters and undecided independents in the battleground states that are likely to decide the election.

Echoing his proposal-laden address of the previous night, Gore laid out his arguments with the Republican-led Congress over its failure to boost the minimum wage. He lit into pharmaceutical companies and Republican opposition to including prescription drug benefits in Medicare.

"Why is it when the doctor gives you a prescription, or recommends you see a specialist, all of a sudden that doctor's recommendation can be overturned by some bean-counter who doesn't have a license to practice medicine?" Gore asked.

He called for "universal preschool for every child in every family all across the United States of America." And he made a pitch to rewrite the nation's campaign finance laws, adding: "Everybody knows our democracy must be reclaimed from the special interests."

While stumping in Memphis, Bush derided Gore's convention promise that he would make campaign finance reform the first measure he sends to Congress if he is elected president in November.

Furthermore, Bush said Gore lacked the moral suasion to make campaign funding an issue. And he specifically mentioned the investigation into fund-raising irregularities during Gore's appearance at a Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights during the 1996 campaign.

"I do not think that it's a credible issue for him. I do not," Bush said. "He continues to deny the Buddhist temple event in his mind was not a fund-raiser."

Bush has his own campaign finance reform plan, although it has been widely criticized for continuing to allow individuals to make unlimited "soft money" donations. Soft money refers to unlimited, loosely regulated donations to political parties.

On Friday in Los Angeles, as the protesters went home and Staples Center began its return to normalcy, Democratic Party leaders worked to build on what they viewed as a successful nominating convention, rallying the troops for the hard work ahead and doling out congratulations.

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