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Heated Rhetoric as Candidates Return to Florida

Politics: With at least two polls conflicted about whether their debate had any effect on the race, Bush and Gore trade barbs as they stump in a key state.


CLEARWATER, Fla. — Stuck in a dead heat little changed by their first debate, presidential nominees George W. Bush and Al Gore lashed out Friday, with the Republican blaming the Clinton administration for a rise in drug abuse and the Democrat warning that Bush would bankrupt Social Security.

"Unfortunately, in the last 7 1/2 years, fighting drug abuse has ceased to be a national priority," Bush charged in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as he pledged to increase federal spending on prevention and treatment by nearly $3 billion over five years.

With President Clinton and Gore ensconced in Washington, D.C., "drug policy has been pursued without urgency, without energy and without meaningful success," Bush said, noting that the percentage of high school seniors who smoke marijuana daily is at its highest level in nearly 20 years.

Campaigning in Orlando, Gore warned that Bush would divert $1 to the stock market out of every $6 that should go into the Social Security trust fund, a plan that would leave the critical benefit program out of cash "in a single generation."

"The stock market can be a good investment," Gore said, "but you don't want to take your safety net, your safety net program, your Social Security, and put that at risk."

With at least two national public opinion polls conflicted about whether the candidates' Tuesday debate had any impact on the tight race, both parties turned their attention to Florida, which is crucial for success in November.

Bush arrived here Friday evening, focusing on the sizable senior population and castigating the administration for promising--but not delivering--Medicare reform. "They've had eight years to get something done on Medicare," said Bush, who has two campaign events scheduled in the state today. "They haven't been able to lead."

Florida should be firmly in Bush's corner, considering his younger brother is governor, but the state is currently believed to be a tossup. Without its 25 electoral votes, Bush would have a prodigious task cobbling together a victory.

Both sides are furiously battling on the Florida airwaves, according to Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising for The Times.

In the last two weeks, Bush and the GOP have spent $2.5 million, blanketing every media market in the state, from Miami to Jacksonville, and even buying heavily in the Mobile, Ala., market, where the airwaves reach parts of rural Florida.

In the same period, Gore and the Democrats have spent $882,000, focusing on Miami, Tampa and Orlando, where Gore and his running mate, Joseph I. Lieberman, stumped earlier Friday. The vice president plans to spend nine of the next 12 days in the state.

If the Democrats' ad buy and schedule don't trumpet Florida's electoral import, listen to Gore on Friday in Orlando: "This state is the key to the election, and central Florida is the key to the state."

Gore's strong showing in Florida has surprised Bush strategists, who had counted the state among their likely victories and not as the battleground it has become. And it has forced them to spend time and money in a place they didn't intend to, bleeding energy away from trying to win key Midwest states.

"My guess is that Bush will end up winning Florida, but by a narrow margin and having had to spend huge amounts of time and money," said Charles Cook, editor of a Washington, D.C.-based political newsletter. "That's just a huge, huge advantage for Gore."

Bush was asked here Friday about whether having to travel to Florida so often has thrown off the campaign's rhythm in the rest of the nation. "I don't think so," he said. "It seems like I'm leading in quite a few states these days."

Before heading to Florida, Bush campaigned in Iowa and Illinois--two states where his rival leads in opinion polls. At an airport rally in Marion, Ill., he praised running mate Dick Cheney's performance in the vice presidential debate.

"I was really proud of how Dick Cheney conducted himself last night in the debate," Bush said. "There's no question--last night, America got to see a man who, if need be, could be president of the United States."

Earlier Friday in Cedar Rapids, Bush proposed increasing funding for a variety of existing anti-drug programs to attack the problem in the nation's schools, workplaces and communities.

If elected president, Bush said he would push for $25 million over five years for nonprofit organizations that educate and train parents in drug prevention. He would increase funding for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program by $100 million over five years. He would double the number of community anti-drug coalitions and pay for the initiative with $350 million over five years. And he would, among other proposals, provide an additional $1 billion over the same period for drug treatment, helping to close what he called the "treatment gap."

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