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Bush and Gore Turn Up the Heat in the Midwest

Politics: Democrat's new ad questions foe's fitness for office. Republican links rival to failed health care plan.


CHICAGO — Their messages blunt and contentious, the presidential candidates crossed the contested Midwest on Thursday, portraying each other in starkly negative fashion as they courted the voters who will decide the tight presidential election.

Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore projected a sunny countenance before a massive rally amid the skyscrapers of Chicago's Loop, even as his campaign unleashed a new ad that directly questioned Bush's fitness for the Oval Office.

"Is he ready to lead America?" asked the ad after criticizing Texas Gov. George W. Bush on his tax cut and his handling of the environment in his home state. The 30-second television ad was appearing in 17 states where the candidates are running neck and neck.

In the Missouri city of St. Charles, Republican nominee Bush sought to tie Gore to one of the Clinton administration's most ignominious episodes, the 1994 defeat of the proposed health care plan quarterbacked by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"He says he's for a step-by-step plan for universal coverage. No, folks. He's for a hop, skip and a jump to nationalized health care," Bush said of Gore. "He thought Hillary-care made a lot of sense."

Later in the day, Bush's campaign was jarred when the governor confirmed that he had been arrested for drunken driving in 1976. He has long acknowledged an alcohol problem during that time and said he quit drinking in 1986.

With a mere five days to go before election day, the candidates on Thursday were delivering caustic criticisms that for so many months has been discreetly parceled out to surrogates. The Gore ad was an example.

For some time, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman has been saying that Bush is not qualified to be president. Several days ago, Gore's wife, Tipper, made the same argument. But, with rare exceptions, Gore has not.

"I haven't said that because I don't think it's my place to say that," he told reporters Saturday.

But Thursday, his campaign unleashed the question across the contested states.

"Minimum wage at $3.35 an hour. Lets polluters police themselves . . . squanders the surplus on a tax cut for those making over $300,000," the ad says. Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said the ad was justified because Bush "broke his promise not to engage in personal, negative attacks."

Earlier this week, the Bush campaign began airing, in 20 contested states, a commercial that accuses Gore of shading the truth. After airing a clip of the vice president saying that "there has never been a time when I have said something untrue," the announcer in the Bush ad asks pointedly: "Really?"

The heightened negativity at this stage of the campaign is neither accidental nor surprising. Each man is seeking to boost the turnout of his backers Tuesday, while depressing the voting of his opponents' supporters.

National polls released Thursday continued to show a narrow Bush lead, well within the margin of error. Gore continued to do well in several key states, however, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, according to new polls.

The concentration of attention on the Midwest was amply evident Thursday. Gore, Bush and Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney were all in Chicago at roughly the same time. Bush's and Lieberman's planes were also briefly at the same airport in St. Louis, with Lieberman departing and Bush arriving.

As election day neared, the machinery of politics roared into high gear: Surrogates flew across the nation touting their candidates. Endorsements and fliers flooded mailboxes. Interest groups staffed phone banks. President Clinton arrived in California for the first of two days of campaigning intended to boost the turnout of Democratic loyalists and help out party nominees in several close congressional races.

Clinton drew jeers from the Bush campaign because of a remark made to a radio show catering to African Americans, the party's most loyal voting bloc. When the host rued that Clinton could not run for another term, the president said, "You can get the next best thing."

Gore officials shrugged off the president's line, comparing his connection with Clinton to the passing of the torch from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle.

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes saw the remark as evidence of what the Republican nominee has declared during the campaign--that Gore would serve a third Clinton term.

"Thank you for making our case," she said of Clinton.

Gore, who is not scheduled to campaign with Clinton before election day, spent Thursday melding negative ads with a sunny derision of Bush's policies as a throwback to those of the past. They are, he said, a threat to American prosperity.

"We have a big choice," the vice president shouted. "My choice is to continue the prosperity . . . keep it going and don't turn back."

"My message to George Bush is, we are not going back. We are going forward," the once undemonstrative vice president said as he pumped his right arm repeatedly toward the damp Chicago sky.

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