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CAMPAIGN 2000: ON THE RAZOR'S EDGE

Candidates Stress Leadership, Direction Along a Busy Trail

Bush: Getting back to his broadest themes, the GOP nominee barnstorms through four states.

November 05, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA and GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PITTSBURGH — George W. Bush returned to the broadest themes of his campaign Saturday, stressing leadership and character and insisting that, if the right man is elected, the president can again be a role model for the nation's families.

"The president can set an example for the moms and dads of America," Bush told thousands of cheering supporters at an airport rally here. "The president can raise this nation's spirits, set our sights high."

But the controversy of the last two days--an acknowledgment that the Republican presidential nominee had been arrested in Maine for drunken driving 24 years ago--hovered just below the surface.

Bush never referred to the events that had thrown him off stride. But at an early-morning rally in Dearborn, Mich., the Texas governor was flanked by two of his strongest character witnesses--running mate Dick Cheney and retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell--both of whom downplayed the incident.

Cheney was the most direct, repeating Republican charges that the story was a smear by Democrats. "As we get down to the end of the campaign, we're seeing the sort of typical, last-minute desperation tactics from the opposition that we've seen time and time again," Cheney said. "But frankly, I think we're all a little tired of the Clinton-Gore routine."

Vice President Al Gore's campaign has categorically denied any involvement in the story, which surfaced when a Democratic activist from Maine tipped off a local TV reporter.

Introducing Bush at the chilly morning rally, Powell spoke of the sacred duty faced by the man who will lead the nation and the military and also dismissed the drunken driving controversy without mentioning it straight on.

"There are just a few days left," Powell said. "Don't be distracted by the little sniping that comes in from the flanks. We know what we're going to do. We know where we're heading. On Tuesday, we're going to have a new president; a president we can be proud of."

Cheney, who served as secretary of Defense during 1991's assault on Iraq, Operation Desert Storm, and chief of staff to President Ford after the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration, sought to paint Bush with the glory of past Republican leaders.

"I've had the privilege of seeing the presidency up close," Cheney told several thousand supporters. "I was there Aug. 9, 1974, when Jerry Ford was sworn in and took over in the midst of the toughest constitutional crisis we'd faced since the Civil War. I saw him restore honor and integrity to the White House."

And he continued: "I watched Ronald Reagan come to town and set the nation on a new course. George W. Bush has what it takes."

Bush traveled through Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey before retiring Saturday night in Jacksonville, Fla. He spoke about education and Social Security reform, strengthening the military, cutting taxes and revamping Medicare, but mostly in broad terms.

He spent much of the day talking about the "role of a leader," seeking to draw clear distinctions between himself and rival Gore, the Democratic candidate. The role of a leader is to "trust the people," Bush said in Dearborn. The role of a leader is not to trade on critical issues for political gain, he said.

Later, in Pittsburgh, Bush declared: "The role of a leader is to set clear priorities. That's what I've been doing in the course of this campaign."

On Friday, a day after admitting to his 1976 drunken driving conviction, Bush largely steered clear of attacks on Gore's credibility and truthfulness. By Saturday, however, those standard assaults were back in his stump speeches, including swipes at Gore's role in promoting the Internet and his calls for a leaner federal government.

Saying the vice president is "prone to exaggeration," Bush asserted that Gore--far from reining in Washington--has "proposed more new spending than Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale combined."

After his joint appearance with Bush in Michigan, Cheney struck out Saturday on his own for a marathon day of stump speeches--from La Crosse, Wis., to Las Cruces, N.M.--that saw his chartered plane touch down in four time zones. He spent Saturday night in San Diego, where he will speak at a rally today before heading to Costa Mesa.

Cheney stuck to his core messages of cutting taxes, improving the military and fighting against "big government." In an airport hangar in Eau Claire, Wis., he was introduced by NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr and arrived onstage wearing an oversize Green Bay Packers jacket that drew cheers from the crowd.

They cheered louder when Cheney criticized the Clinton-Gore administration for overseeing a military that, according to the GOP vice presidential candidate, is undergoing a crisis of morale and neglect. The most sustained applause, however, was reserved for Cheney's comment that Tuesday's election "will mark the end of the Clinton-Gore era."

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