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With McCain at His Side, Bush Courts Undecided Floridians

Politics: Portraying himself as a bipartisan deal maker but committed to a huge tax cut for all, he expresses Reagan-like optimism.


TAMPA, Fla. — George W. Bush barnstormed across central Florida by bus Wednesday, courting undecided voters in a must-win state for him and selling himself as a bipartisan deal maker who nevertheless is unalterably committed to a $1.3-trillion tax cut for all Americans.

The Texas governor also vowed to end "a season of incredible cynicism," and repeatedly struck the same kind of optimistic tone that worked so well a generation ago for another big-state Republican governor who won the White House: Ronald Reagan.

"We are a blessed land. But we can do better," said Bush, who was accompanied by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his brother, and Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former rival for the Republican presidential nomination with demonstrated appeal to independents.

"There's a better day ahead," he said.

If elected, Bush added, he would conduct his presidency in the same manner in which he has run his campaign, which he described as one of "lifting this country's spirits and lifting our sights."

From morning until night, Bush sought the support of potential swing voters along Florida's fast-growing Interstate 4 corridor, which links Daytona Beach on the Atlantic shore to Tampa Bay on the Gulf Coast.

Although the bus trip generated large and enthusiastic crowds at each of the three planned stops, it also was a sobering manifestation that Florida--a reliably GOP state in most presidential elections--is still very much in play.

On Wednesday, two new polls were released in Florida, one showing Bush ahead and one giving the lead to Vice President Al Gore.

And so just as Gore has been forced to campaign in states such as Washington and Oregon--which usually vote Democratic--Bush found himself devoting a full, precious day in the Sunshine State.

In yet another sign of the campaign's volatility, Bush strategists have rejuggled his schedule to send him back by tonight to Ohio, a state that only days ago seemed safely in his column. And although polls show Gore with a strong, though shrinking, lead in California, Bush nevertheless plans to campaign in the state on Monday, again with McCain in tow.

When Bush stumps in California, state residents are likely to see a newly energized, often playful candidate with a succinct, well-honed message that, though still short on details, belies his reputation as a verbal stumbler who has endured much ridicule.

In his speeches, Bush not only vigorously touted his own tax plan but also shredded, with deft humor, Gore's $500-billion "targeted" tax cut proposal.

In the process, the GOP presidential standard-bearer turned several of Gore's favorite phrases against the vice president.

To drive home his contention that 50 million Americans would not qualify for tax reductions under Gore's plan, Bush asked for a show of hands from drivers of hybrid electric-gasoline engine cars and homeowners of solar-heated houses.

The predictable lack of affirmative responses from the audiences underscored Bush's contention that too many would not be eligible for tax cuts under Gore's plan.

"Targeted tax relief," Bush sniffed sarcastically as some 1,500 supporters inside a Seminole Community College hall hooted and jeered.

Gore's approach, Bush said, is divisive. "He likes to pit one group of Americans against another," Bush said.

"Instead of increasing the federal government's spending, we're going to pass some of your money back, some of your money back!"

His undisguised appeal to the pocketbook is eerily similar to that enunciated by Bob Dole during the closing days of his unsuccessful 1996 presidential campaign, in which he repeatedly yelled: "It's your money, it's your money" in promising an across-the-board 15% tax cut.

At each stop, Bush mindfully guarded against possible erosion in his support, especially from Florida's seniors, due to Gore's unrelenting attacks on his proposals to reform entitlement programs.

For instance, at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Bush conceded that Gore is "a man who talks a pretty good game."

But he reminded listeners that in both 1992 and 1996, the Clinton-Gore ticket vowed to reform Medicare and Social Security.

"And here we are now, eight years later, they're still saying the same thing!" Bush said.

Then he turned one of Gore's signature phrases on its head. Noting that the vice president often tells supporters that "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" in promising even greater prosperity, Bush shouted:

"I agree, Mr. vice president. We ain't seen nothing yet!"

After the laughter dissipated, Bush added: "It's time to get rid of the politics of Medicare. . . . Mr. vice president, you've had your chance. You have not led. And we will."

At Seminole Community College, Bush was so fired up by the adoring crowd that he decided--midstream during his remarks--to forgo a planned question-and-answer period in order to deliver what he called "my full speech." He spoke for about 40 minutes.

McCain's presence also seemed to loosen Bush. At one point, the governor referred to himself and the senator as "baby boomers" and then quickly said to McCain, who is 64 years old: "Congratulations. I just made you younger."

McCain proved to be a crowd pleaser as well, serving up several humorous moments, at least one of which was clearly unintended.

At one point, he referred to the GOP ticket as the "Gore-Cheney" ticket.

At another point, McCain urged the gathering of Republicans in Sanford, Fla., to "vote early, vote often . . . ." Amid the laughter, McCain, feigning innocence, asked:

"What'd I say?"

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