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Bush Predicts He'll Take Arkansas

Politics: GOP nominee says he'll win Clinton's home state on election day. As Lieberman woos Florida voters, Cheney invokes Iran hostage crisis.


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — George W. Bush barreled into town Monday to blast Al Gore as a budget buster on the eve of their final presidential debate and predict that he will score big in the state that spawned Bill Clinton's political career.

With national polls tilting narrowly in his direction in a race that seems headed to the wire, Bush said he's not taking anything for granted but is growing confident about his chances on election day.

"Let me tell you what I feel," Bush told a crowd of 2,000 supporters on the banks of the Arkansas River. "Come three weeks from tomorrow, Arkansas is going to be George W. country."

Gore remained in seclusion, preparing for tonight's debate in St. Louis, but his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, returned to the key battleground of Florida to blast Bush's prescription drug plan.

Republican vice presidential hopeful Dick Cheney, meanwhile, invoked memories of the Iranian hostage crisis as he continued to hammer away at Gore over what he says are problems in the U.S. military.

Cheney, a target of Democratic criticism for his remarks on the lack of military readiness, compared his critique to the tough stance Ronald Reagan adopted over the fate of 52 American hostages held by Iran militants during the 1980 presidential campaign.

Heading to St. Louis for tonight's showdown, Bush stopped in Clinton's home state to rip Gore as a "big-spending Democrat" in the mold of Michael S. Dukakis and Walter F. Mondale. The vice president's plans for America, Bush declared, will "bust the budget."

Bush shared a stage on the banks of the Arkansas River with country singer Loretta Lynn and a troop of Boy Scouts.

Emblazoned on the front of the podium was the slogan, "I Trust You," a theme that the Texas governor is deploying to cast Gore as a profligate spender who trusts big government more than individuals.

"We trust people when it comes to schools," Bush said. "We trust people when it comes to Medicare. We trust people when it comes to retirement accounts. And we trust people to be able to spend some of their own money."

Arkansas supported Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Democrats had hoped that backing would translate into support for Gore, but polls put Bush and the vice president in a close race here.

"I can't wait to remind people that the day of the New Democrat is evidently over," Bush said. "The day of the big-spending Democrat is back, the day of the man who wants to take all your money."

But in West Palm Beach, Fla., Lieberman suggested that Bush cannot be trusted.

He warned a gathering of about 1,000 white-haired seniors at a retirement community that the Republican proposal would leave them without any assistance for expensive medications.

Lieberman opened with a few jokes, vouched for his mothers' matzah brie and told the crowd in Hebrew that, God willing, he would return as vice president.

"This is going to be the closest election in 40 years, since John F. Kennedy was elected," he said. "Effectively, this is a dead heat."

Florida has become a key prize as the Democrats challenge Bush in a state that he assumed was his at the start of the campaign.

Lieberman said that people who have worked hard all their lives "should [not] be forced into poverty to pay for the prescription drugs your doctor tells you you need to stay alive. Now, that's just wrong."

Several retirees told the Connecticut senator that skyrocketing prescription drug costs had left them struggling.

Lieberman said he is committed to lowering health costs for seniors, declaring that it is akin to honoring "our fathers and our mothers, our grandfathers and our grandmothers."

On the trail in Springfield, Mo., Cheney brought up the 1980 hostage crisis as he again assailed U.S. military readiness and morale.

Cheney said that the current state of the American military reminds him of another election: Ronald Reagan's run against Jimmy Carter in 1980, a year dominated by the hostage crisis in Iran. The hostages, Cheney pointed out, were released on the day Reagan took office.

"I've always believed that part of that was that they knew they were going to be dealing with a very different kind of president when we elected Ronald Reagan," he said.

Cheney likened the concerns he has expressed about the military to Reagan's tough stance during that election.

"Ronald Reagan went around the country campaigning and talked about the fact that the U.S. military had fallen on hard times, that it wasn't receiving the kind of support that it needed," Cheney told the hushed crowd. "And he was right, absolutely dead on."

His comments drew immediate fire from Gore aides. Kym Spell, a Gore campaign spokeswoman, said that Republicans were trying to "take advantage of the Middle East situation" for political gain.


Finnegan reported from Little Rock and Garvey from Springfield, Mo. Times staff writers Matea Gold in Florida and Eric Bailey in Sacramento contributed to this story.

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