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Presidential Race Turns Ugly With Uncertainty

Campaign: Candidates, their advisors and even outside interests escalate their tactics and advertising claims as a neck-and-neck race nears a bitter end.


KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Attack ads and negative phone calls turned the presidential race into a brawl Friday, as the two major candidates accused each other of underhanded tactics in an increasingly mean-spirited fight down the final stretch.

Aides to George W. Bush denounced a phone-calling campaign that attacks the Texas governor's record on nursing home care and suggests his policies contributed to a man's death. Other calls have criticized Bush's stand on Social Security, suggesting seniors could lose their benefits.

Aides to Gore, meantime, tried linking Bush to an incendiary TV spot accusing the Clinton administration of trading nuclear technology for campaign cash from "Red China." The Bush campaign joined the Gore camp in denouncing the spot, created by a political consultant outside the campaign, and urged that it be yanked off the air.

And in a bit of mischief-making, a Republican group announced plans Friday to run ads promoting Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's candidacy--a bid to draw liberal support away from Gore. The ads, which include footage of Nader criticizing Gore at a speech this week at the National Press Club, are to start airing Monday in Nader strongholds in Oregon, Wisconsin and Washington state.

The jostling came as the two major-party candidates barreled through a handful of tossup states: Bush in Michigan and Gore in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Each pressed their broad themes, Bush attacking Gore's character, Gore attacking Bush's economic policies.

Friday's sharply negative tone reflected the mix of anxiety, uncertainty and sheer unpredictability that overhangs the closest presidential campaign just about anyone involved, from the candidates to their top strategists, has experienced. Most national polls show the race dead even, and more important, surveys suggest the two are tied in the electoral college contest.

The most heated confrontations Friday took place off the campaign trail, as the candidates and their allies intensified efforts to drive voter turnout and influence those who remain undecided.

As Bush stumped across Michigan, aides denounced as "despicable" a taped phone call charging that the Republican broke promises to improve nursing home care in Texas.

In the call, sponsored by the Michigan Democratic Party, a Dallas woman recounts how her husband died nearly four years ago from an illness that nursing home attendants failed to notice.

"When George W. Bush ran for governor, he promised to improve the quality of life for nursing home residents," says Ann Friday. "But Gov. Bush broke that promise when he signed legislation that weakened nursing home standards. Since then, nursing home complaints in Texas have doubled."

Karen Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, called the telephone calls proof that Gore "will sink to the absolute depths . . . to win election."

Hughes said Bush has strengthened nursing home regulations, increased penalties for wrongdoing and made it easier for the state to put bad operators out of business.

But Democrats counter that a bill Bush signed in 1995 weakened nursing home standards, in part by preventing Texas agencies from passing standards that are stronger than federal regulations.

Kym Spell, a Gore spokeswoman, discounted Hughes' criticism, saying the phone calls "are made by a woman who has a very sad story she wants to share. It's a true story, unlike the right wing Republican groups that are coming out at the last minute to help save George Bush's campaign."

Friday sued her husband's nursing home for negligence after his 1995 death and received a $1.25-million settlement.

Still, Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, called the phone calls "a stealth campaign designed to be below the radar and designed to appeal to fears or prejudices."

"These are not advocacy calls," he said. "These are designed to put a bad taste in someone's mouth."

But the Michigan Republican Party has run five "push calls," as they are known, of its own, two still in use. In one of them, Texas lawmaker Rob Junell, a Democrat, touts Bush's record on education, crime and the economy and accuses Gore of breaking promises to cut taxes and offer affordable health care to all Americans.

The taped calls echo similarly controversial efforts in Michigan during the rancorous GOP primary. After Bush spoke at South Carolina's Bob Jones University, rival Sen. John McCain of Arizona paid for calls that suggested Bush was anti-Catholic, because the university founder had branded Catholicism a cult.

Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, made taped calls to Michigan homes in response, charging that a McCain advisor was "a vicious bigot." McCain won the primary.

On the stump Friday, Bush continued his character assault on Gore, accusing the vice president of changing his positions on important principles to curry political favor--something he promises to never do.

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