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Bush Campaigns in Orange County

Politics: Instead of focusing on prayer and education, GOP candidate is forced to fend off questions about gun control and Social Security.


MISSION VIEJO — Texas Gov. George W. Bush swept through Orange County on Thursday, hoping to focus on prayer and education, two subjects he actually likes talking about.

Instead, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee found himself fending off questions about gun control and his new Social Security plan, the details of which he has yet to spell out.

And he continued to accuse Vice President Al Gore, his Democratic opponent, of twisting his record and achievements as governor.

"It's disappointing that someone running for the highest office of the land would continue saying, and feel free and comfortable about saying, things that simply aren't true," he said.

Bush noted that Gore has accused him of never submitting a budget as Texas governor when, in fact, he has. It's amazing Gore could "look people in the eye" and make such a claim, said Bush, who brought along the cover sheets of recent state budgets to prove his point.

He also used the news conference to warn his opponent away from using Social Security as a gerontological wedge issue.

First, Bush said he welcomed bipartisan efforts--such as a meeting Thursday of Republican and Democratic senators in Washington--to reform Social Security, which will run out of money to pay benefits in a generation.

Then Bush said he looked forward to discussing his solution to the problem--details to come--which will involve allowing some individuals to put their Social Security money into private investment accounts.

"In order to do what's right for America, Republicans and Democrats should come together to solve the Social Security issue today before it's too late," Bush said. "I'd hope my opponent would hear that call, that we would have a civil debate, that Social Security shouldn't be used to frighten seniors."

He said Gore's attacks would turn off voters. "I really don't believe America is interested in having a president who gets elected by tearing people down," he said.

Gore aides stood by the statements, saying Bush's role in submitting a budget was not significant. They also said they look forward to a debate on Social Security.

"We think Al Gore has proposed a responsible approach to Social Security that should win bipartisan support, but he simply disagrees with divesting funds out of the Social Security trust fund," said Doug Hattaway, a Gore spokesman.

Bush made an early morning stop at the historic San Juan Capistrano Mission to mark the start of the National Day of Prayer. He quickly toured the mission grounds, stopping for photos by groups of uniformed Roman Catholic schoolchildren awaiting his visit in the courtyard, which was filled with flowers and a fountain.

Aides denied the trip to the mission and its Mission Catholic School was an attempt to repair damage from Bush's visit in February to Bob Jones University, which espouses anti-Catholic teachings. "It's a historic site," one aide said.

As his media crew filmed, Bush then paid a visit to Carl Hankey Elementary School in Mission Viejo.

Although the school is not a charter school, Bush came to the Capistrano Unified School District to highlight his efforts to promote such institutions, which are freed from most local and state regulations imposed upon public schools.

He praised parents and teachers, who are backing state legislation to make the entire district a charter district. "The best reform comes from the bottom up," he said.

After the school, Bush plunged into the heart of Santa Ana's Latino business district to conduct a quietly arranged rally that saw him shaking hands with hundreds of Latinos crowding the streets.

Introducing himself as "Jorge," Bush used his rough Spanish as he visited a barbershop and a clothing store before eating lunch at a taqueria, or taco stand. The crowd cheered him as he walked.

Orange County Republicans didn't publicize the event--an apparent attempt to keep out Gore supporters who might show up to spoil the picturesque scene, set in the heart of Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez's district.

Later, Bush also noted that his trip was meant to shore up support in the traditionally conservative county, where Republican strength has slipped in recent elections.

"Here in Orange County, there's work to be done to energize the base," Bush said. "There's a chance to regain the Republican vote that was lost in '92."

That was the year his father lost to Bill Clinton, a defeat credited in part to President Bush's failure to keep his famous pledge of "Read my lips, no new taxes." Said the governor: "I think it undermined some of his credibility, particularly with Republicans and fiscal conservatives."

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