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CAMPAIGN 2000

Bickering Increases Before Final Debate

Politics: Bush and Gore camps worry and trade barbs over veracity and exaggeration as they ready for tonight's face-off, in which much is at stake.

October 17, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ST. LOUIS — As the two presidential nominees head into their final--and perhaps most crucial--debate tonight, both campaigns are on heightened alert regarding issues of accuracy and charges of exaggeration.

Democrats raised questions Monday about the veracity of Texas Gov. George W. Bush during the second face-off between the two men about a week ago. The first debate led to continued attacks against Vice President Al Gore, who has struggled for weeks under the label of "serial embellisher."

That both campaigns are increasingly loud in their bickering over the first two debates is an indication of how much is at stake in exchange No. 3. The race is close, the election is just three weeks away and neither candidate can afford to make a big mistake in the town hall-style event tonight.

Bush and Gore, seated on stools on a stage at Washington University here, will field unscreened questions from about 100 uncommitted voters chosen for the event by the Gallup polling organization.

"If this is another draw, I think people will say Bush won," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a Washington-based political newsletter. "They'll say he got through three debates . . . on par with a sitting vice president. Gore needs to win the debate to change the psychology of the race."

Bill Daley, Gore's campaign chairman, said Monday that he thinks "both campaigns would have a lot of urgency and lot of stress and anxiety going on right now, because this is getting down to the final [weeks] in a race that the vast majority of polls show is a horse race."

Bush, who held rallies in Arkansas and Missouri on Monday, was asked about tonight's exchange as he boarded his campaign plane at midday in Austin, Texas.

"The thing about these debates," he said, jabbing at his opponent, "is that you have got to know who you are and what you believe. And I know what I believe. And I am looking forward to sharing it with the people talking about my beliefs."

Although the race is still too close to call, several national polls released Monday showed Bush inching ahead of Gore. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll showed Bush in front, 47% to 44%. An NBC-Wall Street Journal survey gave Bush 48% to Gore's 42%. A Voter.com Battleground poll put Bush ahead 43% to 39%. All are within the polls' margins of error.

The vice president holed up Monday at the Innsbrook Resort, a 6,000-acre spa, conference center and certified Audubon sanctuary about an hour from St. Louis.

He spent the day preparing for the final joint appearance, receiving feedback from senior strategists as well as about two dozen "special advisors," citizens from around the country whom Gore had met during the campaign.

As Bush stumped and Gore prepped, the Democrat's campaign flew three Texas lawmakers to St. Louis to meet with reporters Monday. The men, also Democrats, charged that during the second debate the governor vastly exaggerated the amount of state spending for Texans without health insurance.

Armed with a video of the North Carolina event, the legislators said Bush claimed three times that Texas spent $4.7 billion a year for those without insurance when, in fact, the state spends just under $1 billion of its own funds.

The rest of the money, according to the legislators and an official Texas government Web site, comes from local jurisdictions, the federal government and private contributions.

Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan dismissed the attacks as a nonsensical overreaction by a rival campaign that is "feeling the heat for its exaggeration and embellishments." And he said Bush did not mean to imply that all $4.7 billion was state money.

"Gov. Bush was accurate when he said that we spend $4.7 billion for the uninsured," Sullivan said, arguing that Bush meant Texans in general when he said "we."

Dinging Gore for overstatements has been a Bush campaign staple for months; it became a fierce focus after the first debate, during which Gore erroneously said that he visited Texas wildfires in 1998 with James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Gore staffers began trying to turn the tables on Bush the morning after the second debate in Winston-Salem, N.C.

At that time, Daley argued that Bush had exaggerated when he said three men faced execution as a result of the slaying of James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, Texas. Only two were sentenced to die.

At the same time, Daley urged reporters to hold Bush to the same rigorous standard to which it has subjected Gore.

The Gore campaign sent out e-mail Monday listing what it regarded as a series of Bush exaggerations. An Austin-based Web site called bushwatch.com, which claims no political party affiliation, also posted "27 Bush Flubs in the Second Debate."

The big question is whether the charges will stick to Bush the way they have adhered to Gore. So far, they haven't, said Larry Gerston, professor of political science at San Jose State University, in part because of the expectations surrounding the two men.

"The bar for Gore is considerably higher than it is for Bush," Gerston said. "When [Gore] went below it, he failed. Bush's bar was put so low . . . that he's met and exceeded those expectations."

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Times staff writer Michael Finnegan and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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