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CAMPAIGN 2000

Gore, Bush Step Up Bitter Attacks

Politics: Gore questions Texan's qualifications for the White House. In turn, governor suggests vice president is a liar. Both angle for McCain backers.

March 14, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA and JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NASHVILLE — With today's primaries almost an afterthought, presumed presidential nominees Al Gore and George W. Bush stepped up their mutual attacks Monday as both called for reforms in the political process.

Stumping through Florida and his home state of Tennessee, Gore continued to criticize Bush's leadership experience, raising questions about the Texas governor's plans for health care and the economy. Bush returned the volley from stops in Mississippi and Louisiana, calling Gore someone who "clouds the truth" on important issues like Social Security.

But, in a sign of the importance that political reform has played in this year's primary season, both men signaled their desire for change. Bush supporters reached out to former GOP candidate John McCain, whose signature issue is campaign finance reform. And Gore criticized political television ads.

"These ads masquerade as real, meaningful dialogue," Gore said. "They're not. Most of them are slogans and fuzzy images and selling candidates the way dog food and soapsuds are sold."

For both men, their campaign appearances Monday were more about November's general election than today's so-called Southern Super Tuesday.

Tennessee and five other states--Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas--hold primaries today, awarding enough delegates to secure the nominations for both parties. But the suspense of the race vanished last week with the disappearance of both men's chief competitors. Democrat Bill Bradley dropped out of the race Thursday, and Republican McCain said the same day that he would suspend his campaign indefinitely.

Bush spent much of Monday responding to Gore's suggestions that he is not prepared to be president.

When asked about Gore's statements that special interests have prevented Bush from advancing meaningful health care reform, Bush all but called the vice president a liar.

"Anything to justify keeping money in Washington, D.C., is what the vice president will say," Bush said. "This is a person who will say anything to get elected, even if it clouds the truth."

Bush and his supporters also offered kind words to McCain, whose campaign attracted independent and Democratic voters who may prove crucial in the general election. McCain has not endorsed Bush.

Bush said he would work on some of McCain's favorite topics, including shoring up the Social Security system and campaign finance reform.

"There's going to be plenty of grounds for a reform agenda to go forward," Bush said.

During a news conference outside Jackson, Miss., Bush was joined by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who promised a warm homecoming for McCain in the Senate.

"The message that I have for John is, 'Hey, John, we kept the light on for you. We want to make sure that you could come back here and go back to work,' " Lott said.

In Metairie, La., Bush found himself on the defensive again against rumors of past drug use. Grace King High School student Glenn Dyer asked Bush why he continued to dodge questions about his drug use.

Dyer's classmates booed and Bush stiffened. When the Texas governor tried to put to rest such questions last summer, he said that he could pass the kind of background check required of federal employees, which would research issues such as drug use as far back as the early 1970s.

"There's a game in politics that says, let's float a rumor and force somebody to talk about it," Bush said sternly. "And I'm not playing that game."

On the Democratic side, Gore campaigned in Miami and then back home in Nashville, where he met with dozens of mayors from around the nation.

He also spoke at a fund-raising reception, where 400 people were expected to raise $200,000 for his campaign. He planned to vote in the primary today in Carthage, Tenn., about 50 miles from Nashville, where he owns a farm.

It was, for Gore, what is likely to be a typical campaign day: His attention was focused on chopping away at Bush and his allies and working to drum up attention in an important battleground state, in this case, Florida.

Gore demanded an apology Monday from the National Rifle Assn. after Wayne LaPierre, the group's executive vice president, accused President Clinton and Gore of using recent school violence for political ends. Gore called LaPierre's comments "shocking."

"I believe Mr. LaPierre's comment reveals a kind of sickness at the very heart of the NRA," the vice president said, speaking to medical personnel at Jackson Memorial Medical Center in Miami.

"Anyone who has spent time, as I have many times, with the families of victims of gun violence and felt the heartache, the pain, for the way gun violence tears families apart, couldn't possibly make such a comment," Gore said.

Challenging Bush's tax cut plan, the vice president said in his Miami speech: "If you look at his risky scheme, it raises again the serious and pointed question--Does Gov. Bush have the experience to be president?"

Times staff writer Janet Wilson contributed to this story.

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