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Gore Defends Social Security Plan, Raps Bush

Campaign: Likely presidential nominees engage in testy exchange. New poll shows vice president ahead of Texas governor for first time.


CINCINNATI — Under attack from George W. Bush about Social Security, Vice President Al Gore Thursday defended his own ideas for shoring up the government's retirement program and sharply questioned Bush's plan.

"My approach guards against raising the retirement age beyond what is already required in present law," Gore said, diverting briefly from a speech to parents and teachers here about urban school problems. "It guards against privatizing Social Security. What is Gov. Bush's plan for Social Security? That's where the credibility issue really lies, because he's trying to hide it."

The testy exchange between the two likely presidential nominees came on the same day that a poll showed Gore edging slightly ahead of the Texas governor. The national survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found Gore leading Bush, 49% to 43%, the first time he had taken a lead in the Pew polls.

The campaign debate turned to Social Security when Bush said in an interview published by the Washington Post on Thursday that Gore was too partisan and untrustworthy to repair the retirement program or to reform campaign finance laws.

Bush, who denied in the interview that he will cede California to Gore, said the vice president has "a major credibility problem" regarding his reform proposals.

Bush continued the attack Thursday as he campaigned in Florida.

In Orlando, he called Gore an "obstacle to reform" who was all but clueless when it came to dealing with such thorny governmental issues as Social Security and education reform.

"I'm going to continue to talk loud and clear about the fact that this man's an obstacle to reform," Bush said. "I know people on the vice president's team don't like me to remind people that this guy will say anything to get elected, but I'm going to."

Responding to a student's question about the Social Security system, the governor said: "It's important to have a president who understands there is a problem and is willing to bring people together. It's time to seize the moment and get something done.

"I'm going to tell you something, people in this country need to ask, 'Who's the reformer in the race? Who's got the ability to bring people together and get something done and who's an obstacle to reform?" he said.

Later, at a fund-raiser in West Palm Beach, Fla., Bush said he would also make Gore's lengthy career in Washington an issue, noting that he was an outsider who ran an oil business and the Texas Rangers baseball team before becoming governor in 1994.

"Doesn't it make sense to have a president of the United States who had experience in the real world?" he asked a crowd of about 300.

Gore, linking his GOP rival to religious conservatives, said Bush's attacks did not come "entirely as a surprise because the Pat Robertson Republicans have been known for this."

"I was hoping we could have a campaign of ideas instead of insults and negative, personal attacks," the vice president said.

He continued: "I think there is in fact a credibility issue when it comes to Social Security, but contrary to what he said concerning my approach, I have presented a plan, and [I would] devote the entire Social Security surplus to strengthening the fund and not allow it to be used for anything else."

Bush has yet to offer a specific plan to shore up the retirement plan and said in the interview he would not promise to do so before the election.

But he has proposed setting up personal savings accounts to allow people to invest part of their payroll taxes in retirement programs and creating legislation that forbids Congress to spend the Social Security surplus.

At the heart of the dispute is the concern that the Social Security system will be overwhelmed when the post-World War II baby boom generation retires and begins to claim its share of the trust fund.

Gore says Bush's tax-cut plan, which the vice president estimates would drain $2.1 trillion from the federal treasury over 10 years, would not leave enough to meet the retirement payments while also paying for other government programs.

Of the federal surplus that is anticipated over the next 10 years, approximately $2.2 trillion is in the Social Security fund and $800,000 is non-Social Security.

Gore would dedicate the Social Security surplus to shoring up the retirement system for the years when demand on it is expected to increase, and to paying down the federal debt.

Under Clinton administration projections, the interest saved from the debt reduction would keep the retirement plan solvent until 2050.

Speaking in the library of the Sands Montessori school in Cincinnati, which claims the title of the oldest public Montessori school in the nation, the vice president said Bush "wishes to privatize Social Security and has opened the door to raising the retirement age in Social Security." The current age at which workers are entitled to full Social Security benefits is 65, but will rise to 67 over a period of years under current law.

"I'd like to see more debate of what he means because in this morning's newspapers he called for fundamental changes in Social Security. No credibility problem there. I believe him, because he said it," Gore said Thursday. "No credibility problem when he asserts he wants to privatize part of it. He said it. I believe him."

For each candidate, Thursday was also a fund-raising day. Their light schedules of public appearances were in contrast with their heavy fund-raising.

Gore picked up approximately $1 million for the Democratic National Committee during three appearances here and, in the evening, in the Detroit area. Bush expected to raise $1.2 million Thursday in West Palm Beach and today in Little Rock, Ark.


Gerstenzang reported from Cincinnati and Detroit; Miller reported from West Palm Beach, Fla.

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