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Bush Attacks Clinton for State of Military

Republicans: He tells veterans in Midwest that fighting forces are underpaid, overworked. He promises to pour money into defense.


MILWAUKEE — Texas Gov. George W. Bush chided the Clinton administration Monday for shortchanging America's fighting forces and promised to reverse what he characterized as nearly eight years of neglect.

"The current administration inherited a military ready for the dangers and challenges facing our nation," Bush said in his harshest critique of American defense readiness in nearly a year. "The next president will inherit a nation in decline."

Bush lambasted the Clinton administration for burdening the nation's fighting men and women with "back-to-back deployments, poor pay, shortages of spare parts and equipment and rapidly declining readiness" as he continued what will be a 19-state Republican campaign swing, bracketed by the Labor Day weekend and the end of the Democratic convention.

"At the start of the administration, 85% of all combat units in the Air Force were ready for their mission," Bush told the Veterans of Foreign Wars' annual convention here, which Vice President Al Gore will address today. "At the start of this year, only 65% of those units were ready. . . . We must do something."

As the presidential race has tightened, Bush and Gore have been treading the same stretch of the critical Midwest in recent days. On Monday, Bush left Milwaukee for Des Moines, campaigning at a downtown elementary school just 141 miles from a Gore event in Keokuk, Iowa. Bush planned to campaign in Illinois and Missouri today; Gore visited both on Monday.

Asked if he was consciously campaigning in Gore's wake, Bush snapped, "We've had this schedule [in place] way ahead of time."

Speaking with reporters on his campaign plane Monday morning before taking off from Austin, Texas, Bush acknowledged the altered post-campaign dynamic, but he discounted a slew of recent opinion polls that gave the vice president a slight lead for the first time since March.

"Somebody told me there's one [poll] that shows we're dead even," Bush said. "I like my chances, but I know I've got a lot of work to do. It's going to be a close race."

Karen Hughes, spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, said 15 of the states--including California--targeted by the Republican presidential nominee and his running mate, Dick Cheney, have been won by the Democrats in the past two presidential election cycles.

In Monday's venues--Wisconsin and Iowa--no Republican candidate for president has won since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Hughes said that the purpose of the trip was to reach out to independent voters and conservative Democrats, in addition to underscoring the importance of education and military readiness.

Bush often notes that his father's tenure in the White House coincided with the end of the Cold War. But he does not publicly acknowledge that defense budgets actually began to drop during the Reagan administration and continued to decline throughout the elder Bush's time in office.

Instead, as he did Monday while addressing the VFW here, he laid full blame for the military's woes in the lap of President Clinton and Vice President Gore. He rued a shortage of cruise missiles and the fact that, earlier this year, the Navy had cut back on training and maintenance because of a lack of funds.

Gore campaign spokeswoman Kym Spell derided Bush's accusations and proposals as "tough talk" and said that the Republican "doesn't have a real plan to keep our military strong."

"Bush spouts off about how he would undertake a massive military buildup," Spell said, "but his huge tax breaks [proposed] for the wealthy would save nothing for America's military."

And Spell rebutted Bush's charges that Clinton has turned his back on America's defense, arguing that the president signed a 4.8% military pay raise in 1999, followed by a 3.7% raise earlier this month.

Charging that the Clinton raises were not enough, Bush reiterated his support for a $1-billion, or 2.9%, military pay raise above and beyond the Clinton increases. He again vowed to improve military housing and to review overseas deployments.

He vowed to pour money and support back into the nation's fighting forces if he is elected president, as he has throughout the campaign.

And he proposed $310 million to build and repair public schools at or near military bases--schools that serve an estimated 700,000 children of military personnel and that are the responsibility of the federal government.

"Dick Cheney and I have a simple message today for our men and women in uniform," he said. "Help is on the way."

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