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Gore Begins a Weeklong Education Offensive

Politics: The vice president holds a school issues seminar while preparing for debate. The Bush camp continues to berate Democratic rival.


SARASOTA, Fla. — Vice President Al Gore conducted a seminar of sorts on education Sunday, sitting back in the wicker furniture of his veranda in Washington, and talking about school policy with political activists, teachers and students.

Gore plans to raise the issue several times this week as he prepares for his second debate with Texas Gov. George W. Bush on Wednesday in Winston-Salem, N.C. The vice president told reporters before the al fresco lunch-and-lecture at his residence that he would do his best to shoehorn the topic of education into the debate--even if moderator Jim Lehrer and Bush do not bring it up.

"I'll find a way to get it in there. You'll see," said Gore, who flew here Sunday to practice for the debate and attend informal campaign stops about education.

Gore's education program would help communities hire 100,000 new teachers to reduce crowded classrooms, test new teachers to determine their qualifications, and demand testing of students in the fourth and eighth grades to make sure the stepped-up programs are effective.

In addition, Gore has proposed incentives to help local school districts issue interest-free bonds to pay for school construction and modernization without putting new pressure on property taxes.

"Then, local school districts have a much better chance to relieve overcrowding, recruit new teachers and reduce the classroom size," he told about a dozen invited guests from the Washington area.

"I think more one-on-one time is one of the real keys because when I think back to the teachers that made a difference for me, it's always the ones I was able to get some one-on-one time with that really had the biggest impact," he said. "But if a teacher's got 35, 36 students in a classroom, they can't do that. It would be exhausting. But if you get it down to 18 or 20, then the one-on-one time is possible."

Gore briefly addressed violence in the Middle East on Sunday, appearing to put some distance between himself and the ultimatum that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak delivered Saturday to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Barak gave Arafat 48 hours to restrain the violence or face the use of Israeli troops to restore calm by "all available means."

Asked specifically whether he supported the ultimatum, he said: "Well, that's going to be for Israel to decide. They have to decide how best to meet their security."

Gore also said, "The top priority now should be to concentrate on trying to end the violence and get the parties back to the negotiating table and try to restart the peace process."

As Gore stayed above the fray with talk of education and foreign policy, his vice presidential nominee, Joseph I. Lieberman, went after Republicans who have criticized Gore for what they contend is his weakness for exaggeration.

That criticism has sharpened since Tuesday's first presidential debate, when Gore claimed to have visited Texas with federal emergency czar James Lee Witt--actually, he met with a deputy.

Lieberman said those who criticized Gore were engaging in "nasty personal attacks . . . based on nonsense, which is not what this campaign is about."

In an interview with CNN, the Connecticut senator criticized his GOP counterpart, Dick Cheney, for "mocking" the Democrats' proposals, but set off on his own lancing indictment of Bush's tenure as governor of Texas.

"George Bush's record on the environment in Texas is horrible," Lieberman said. "They have the most toxically polluted air in America. Houston is the dirtiest city. Kids in Houston don't know whether they can go out to play every day until the school officials, or the local officials, check the air quality."

He also criticized Bush's record on other matters involving children, including health care and the availability of health insurance. The comments were a precursor to Lieberman's visit to Texas later this week in which he will draw attention to what the Gore campaign called Bush's "failed leadership."

Undeterred, Bush campaign officials continued to berate Gore on Sunday.

"This is a man who has difficulty telling the truth," Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove said of Gore on NBC's "Meet the Press." "He constantly exaggerates and embellishes. . . ."

The Democratic focus on Texas, including a new Democratic National Committee advertising campaign as well as the Lieberman tour, reflects a by-the-book approach to last-month campaigning:

While Gore seeks to maintain a positive posture, focusing on education and other policies, others in the campaign will seek to turn a spotlight on what they see as the opponent's weaknesses.

Asked why the campaign was launching its attacks now, Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway said "folks are beginning to pay attention--it's getting to decision time."


Times political writer Cathleen Decker and staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this story.

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