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Bush Cranks Up the Rhetorical Heat as Gore Focuses His Attentions on Nader

Republicans: Texan characterizes his rival as hesitant and unprincipled.


PITTSBURGH — George W. Bush unleashed one of his harshest personal attacks Thursday on Al Gore, portraying the vice president as a timid and unprincipled chameleon even as he pledged to "restore civility to our national politics."

"When you govern by focus groups, and act for interest groups, you can't confront the real problems," the Texas governor said. "When you wait for the latest polls to point the way, you can't lead. When you hold your finger to the wind, you can't put your finger on a problem. And when you hold on to power for power's sake, you cannot govern."

Bush, the Republican nominee, also sought to rivet Gore to the Clinton legacy, charging that the vice president's "big government" agenda would only "add four years of drift to eight years of failed leadership."

Campaigns tend to get nastier as election day looms; Bush's rhetoric Thursday reflects the tightness of the race for the Oval Office.

As Nov. 7 has neared, his and Gore's language have become increasingly pugilistic--a risky strategy when Republican and Democrat both are trying to woo moderate and independent voters who profess to be turned off by attack politics.

Campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer said he saw no disconnect between Bush's harsh assessment of Gore and his promises for a more civil future in Washington. And he argued that Bush has not changed tone, rather people are paying closer attention to every word the candidates speak.

"I'd be hard pressed to say there's any shift in emphasis or tone," Fleischer said.

Predictably, Bush's comments drew return fire from the Gore camp.

"What we are seeing is a candidate who is getting very nervous," said Kym Spell, a spokeswoman for the Democratic nominee. "George W. Bush knows he cannot win on the issues. And he is diverting people's attention from the fact that he lacks the experience and the judgment to hold the office."

Bush delivered his address at Pittsburgh's Soldiers and Sailors Museum, reading his remarks from a TelePrompTer in a mostly dispassionate tone that belied the harshness of the words themselves.

He also alluded to Gore's infamous defense of his controversial fund-raising practices, when the vice president declared in 1997 that there was "no controlling legal authority" for his actions.

"In my administration, we will ask not only what is legal, but what is right," Bush said. "Not just what lawyers allow, but what the public deserves. In my administration, we will make it clear there is the controlling authority of conscience."

Conversely, Bush vowed to imbue his own administration with "responsible leadership" guided "by principles and convictions that will not change." That quality, he said, is "the most important task of an American president."

Despite the strong denunciations, Bush promised in the same speech to "do everything I can to restore civility to our national politics."

While Gore has been warning voters around the country that "prosperity itself" is on the line in this election, Bush in his half-hour speech here indicated that he agrees.

"My opponent would expand government more than we've seen in 35 years. And that's a threat to our prosperity," Bush said. "But the problem runs deeper. Even if we could afford to pay for the vice president's ideas, they would still be the wrong ideas."

He went on to delineate a number of policy differences between himself and Gore, delivering highly critical reviews of Gore's proposals.

Bush closed by indicating that he harbors few illusions about getting things done in Washington.

"I know you can't take the politics out of politics. I'm a realist," he said. "But I'm convinced our government can show more courage in confronting hard problems, more goodwill toward the other side, more integrity in the exercise of power."

The Soldiers and Sailors Museum setting reinforced a subtext to the campaign: military affairs. Pennsylvania and Florida, where Bush recently campaigned, are home to some of the nation's highest concentrations of veterans.

Bush's touring mates also played to those audiences.

In Pennsylvania, Bush was joined by Gov. Thomas J. Ridge, a Vietnam combat veteran, and by Gen. Colin L. Powell, who served as President Bush's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Aging recipients of the Medal of Honor have also joined Bush at numerous stops.

In Florida, a giant American flag served as the backdrop as Bush spoke at one event. He was joined by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of America's best-known war heroes and a former contender for the GOP nomination, who praised Bush as someone "fully prepared to assume the duties" of president.

Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, also sounded the military theme during a visit to Germantown High School outside Memphis, in Gore's home state of Tennessee.

Speaking to high school social studies students and local Republicans, Cheney ran through his usual themes of education, Social Security and Medicare. He then faced some tough grilling from students, an unusual exchange in what often are tightly controlled appearances.

Cheney received a standing ovation at the start and end of the event, but not everyone joined in. Pockets of African American students scattered through the crowd remained seated. For Cheney, who usually speaks to overwhelmingly white audiences, it was a rare encounter. In response to one black student's question about how he would help minorities, Cheney spoke about the need to improve education nationwide. Many of the black students shook their heads.

Afterward, 16-year-old Shannin Jackson, one of the head-shakers, said she didn't like what she heard.

"I don't agree with him," she said. Added her friend Ashley Smith, 17: "I'm for Gore."


Times staff writers Maria L. La Ganga and Scott Martelle contributed to this story.

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