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CAMPAIGN 2000

Bush, Gore Hit the Post-Debate Trail Running

Campaign: The Texan goes after independents by saying they are 'sick and tired of Washington.' The Democrat attacks his rival's Social Security plan.

October 19, 2000|JAMES GERSTENZANG and MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

FLINT, Mich. — Using psychological warfare and the blunt instrument of campaign rhetoric, Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush brawled their way across the Midwest on Wednesday, seeking to build momentum after their final presidential debate.

Gore and his aides took aim at Bush's Social Security program. The vice president said there is not enough money in the Social Security surplus to allow investment of retirement funds in the stock market to benefit young workers when they retire--as Bush has proposed--and also provide Social Security to current beneficiaries and those who will be eligible soon.

Bush launched a tactical strike intended to bring independent voters into his camp. These voters, he said, are "sick and tired of Washington." He pledged to "get rid of the partisan bickering."

The two appeals--one based on specific policy differences, the other on the tenor of American politics--went directly to the strengths each candidate sees working in his favor:

Bush is seeking to exploit poll findings that he is more "likable"; Gore is trying to take advantage of greater support for his positions on key economic and domestic policies.

Saying that under his program Social Security is "strengthened, protected, extended, guaranteed," Gore said the Republican presidential candidate's plan for the retirement program would leave it "bankrupt within a generation."

Gore has proposed a retirement saving plan under which, in addition to the traditional Social Security program, retirement saving would be encouraged by government contributions: Those earning $30,000 or less a year would be given $1,500 from the government if they put aside $500 in savings; those earning $60,000 would be given $1,000 when they put aside $1,000 in savings; those earning up to $100,000 could get $500 from the government for $1,500 in savings.

The Bush plan would take $1 trillion from the Social Security trust fund over 10 years and devote it to long-term private investments, building on the idea that individuals can better invest the money than the government and thus build larger personal nest eggs.

Gore argues that this would pull too much money from the trust fund. The fund is replenished by current workers and is used to pay current benefits to retirees.

So, he asks, with not enough to go around once the $1 trillion is invested, who would get the money, current retirees or future beneficiaries?

"Which promise is he going to break?" he asked at a forum of about 200 mostly elderly people assembled at a Des Moines meeting hall.

It was his second stop on a day that would take him from St. Louis to Jefferson City, Mo., on to Des Moines and then to an evening rally in Flint, Mich., the heart of the old Rust Belt, before ending up in New York City at midnight.

The Gore campaign went so far as to dispatch a message directed to Bush, engaging in a pesky bit of psychological warfare.

As the vice president's motorcade arrived at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Wednesday morning, Gore's spokesman Chris Lehane trotted over to Bush's chartered 757 jet and passed a handwritten note: "Governor: Good morning. Where does the $1 trillion come from?"

Bush, campaigning in Wisconsin and Michigan, turned his focus to what he hopes will be an undercurrent of distaste for partisanship.

But introducing the candidate at a rally of several thousand people in La Crosse, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson said Gore should be sent "back to kindergarten" to learn not to exaggerate, interrupt or "bully" people--a reference to what he portrayed as rude behavior by Gore in the debate.

Bush was only somewhat less blunt during his public appearances.

"With Republicans and Democrats and independents alike, we're here to say, if you're sick and tired of Washington, D.C., the attitudes, the finger-pointing, the name-calling, if you want a fresh start after a season of cynicism, join this campaign," he said at an airport rally in Eau Claire, Wis. "There's room for you."

Bush sharpened his attacks on the vice president, saying his opponent grew up in Washington and "spent his adult life" there.

"We're of the people, by the people and for the people," Bush said. "That's the motto of our campaign. He's of the government, he's for the government, he loves Washington, D.C."

Bush also mocked Gore for denying in the debate that he favors big government.

"Now there's a man who's prone to exaggeration," Bush said to a roar of laughter and applause.

Tuesday night's debate marked the final event of the presidential campaign that was likely to be seen by tens of millions of voters. Bush aides said they were encouraged by their whisker-thin edge in the polls.

"I think we have exceeded all expectations," said Bush communications director Karen Hughes. "We've come out of the debate phase with the trend clearly in our direction."

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