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Rivals Wrap Up Preparations

Politics: Day before they face off, Gore keeps a low profile. Bush goes on the attack in campaign rally.


HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — George W. Bush and Al Gore wrapped up preparations Monday for a debate tonight that offers each perhaps his best chance at gaining an edge in the closest presidential race in decades.

With tens of millions of Americans set to watch the Texas governor and the vice president face off for the first time, the stakes could not be higher. But both made a point of appearing relaxed Monday.

For Gore, it was a barefoot walk on the beach in Sarasota, Fla.; for Bush, a jog through this West Virginia coal-mining town.

Gore, who kept a low profile Monday, predicted there would be few, if any, attacks in the debate.

"There won't be from me," he told ABC News. "If there are from him, I'll deal with that at the time."

But Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, said the Texas governor expects Gore to be harsh. "I think by the end of the evening, we'll see him resorting to his familiar style, which is attack, attack, attack," she said.

Bush himself was on the attack Monday at a campaign rally here. Surrounded by coal miners, he cast Gore as a menace to prosperity and laid out his own agenda to about 1,500 cheering supporters.

"It is time for new leadership in Washington, D.C.," Bush hollered. "The people of West Virginia do not want four more years of Clinton-Gore. And these good folks standing behind me, their wallets can't stand four more years of Clinton-Gore."

Bush also previewed a likely line of attack in the debate tonight in Boston as he defended his plan to let people invest part of their Social Security benefits in the stock market.

"Tomorrow night in the debates, you will hear him say, 'Oh, we can't do that,' " Bush said. "You know why? Because he trusts government, and I trust people."

After a weekend of poring through briefing books and staging mock debates with campaign staff at his ranch in Texas, Bush brought a cadre of advisors with him to West Virginia to finish preparations. Among them were Josh Bolten, his chief policy advisor, and Condoleezza Rice, his top foreign policy advisor.

The 90-minute debate at the University of Massachusetts is the first of three between the presidential candidates. It starts at 6 p.m. PDT.

With several polls released Monday showing Bush and Gore in a dead heat, both face extraordinary pressure to attract undecided voters and persuade those leaning one way or the other to change their minds.

Like Bush, Gore held mock debates over the weekend and on Monday. On Monday morning, Gore ran five miles on a treadmill in his hotel, then ate breakfast with his daughters Sarah and Karenna and other relatives.

"I think he feels very good," said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane.

Helping Gore were campaign chairman Bill Daley, campaign manager Donna Brazile and other advisors, but also 12 "real people" he recruited on the campaign trail to offer advice. Gore took a walk on the beach with the 12 on Monday.

When he arrives in Boston, Gore, like Bush, will do a quick walk-through of the debate site.

For his part, Bush has watched videotapes of Gore debating other opponents, and campaign advisors have studied many more, Hughes said. She called Gore's debate style "almost robotic." But the Bush campaign has tried to raise expectations for Gore and lower them for Bush. Hughes also predicted that Gore will make the "ridiculous" assertion that Bush's proposed tax cut benefits the richest 1% of Americans.

"But he'll say it over and over under the theory that a lie told 1,000 times becomes the truth," she told reporters flying on Bush's plane from Texas to West Virginia.

A congressional study released Monday cast doubt on the value of Bush's proposal to cut taxes by $1.3 trillion over 10 years.

It found that more than 12 million Americans would not get the full benefit of the tax cut, because they would have to pay the "alternative minimum tax." That tax is essentially a parallel income tax system created to ensure that the wealthy and corporations could not entirely escape taxes through write-offs and other legal means. Income is taxed at up to 28%. As a result, some would get no tax cut, others would get smaller reductions than expected, and the total tax relief under Bush's plan would drop by $192 billion, according to the report by the bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation. The panel prepared the study at the request of Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush would work with Congress to protect more Americans from the alternative minimum tax.

The two vice presidential candidates were also gearing up for their debate Thursday in Danville, Ky. Republican Dick Cheney was rehearsing in Jackson, Wyo., while Gore's running mate, Joseph I. Lieberman, rehearsed at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.


Times staff writers Dana Calvo and Megan Garvey and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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