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Bush Taunts Gore in a Dead-Even Contest

Politics: Texas governor assails his opponent's character. Vice president stays above fray as he draws even in race.


ROMEO, Mich. — Their battle for the White House a dead heat, George W. Bush and Al Gore marked the traditional Labor Day launch of the general election campaign Monday with clashes that in Bush's case laid bare his continuing effort to impugn the vice president's character.

Speaking at the Peach Festival here, Bush sought to portray Gore's refusal to sign on to a Bush-proposed series of debates as akin to President Clinton's evasions over the Monica S. Lewinsky affair.

"My opponent said he'd debate me any time, anyplace, anywhere; he went on some of the national TV shows and said, 'If he'll just show up I'll debate him,' " Bush taunted.

"It must all depend on what the definition of any time is. It depends on what the definition of anywhere is. . . . I guess it's the same old tired double talk out of Washington, D.C.--'No controlling legal authority.' 'It depends on what the definition of 'is' is.' "

The latter two well-known statements were uttered, respectively, by Gore when he was seeking to excuse controversial fund-raising calls he made for the 1996 presidential campaign and by Clinton when he was questioned by independent counsel's office during the Lewinsky affair.

As evidence that the presidential race has been dramatically altered in recent weeks, Gore campaigned above the fray. He contended that he dismissed Bush's debate proposals because they would produce shorter, less-watched events. He referred to Bush only sparingly and elliptically. He argued, as he has in recent days, that Bush must flesh out his agenda with details.

"I believe people need specifics before the election," Gore declared in Flint, Mich.

Gore spent most of his time touting both his agenda and the gains seen under the Clinton administration, and argued that he would extend the good times.

"I'm not satisfied," he told more than 1,000 supporters at the Louisville Speedway in Kentucky. Then he exulted: "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

The day's events sharply delineated the race's new configuration. For months, Bush has led in the polls, often by large margins, and Gore has repeatedly had to right his listing ship.

But since the Democratic convention in Los Angeles ended on Aug. 17, Gore has surged. Once ham-handed, the vice president has campaigned confidently and has been on the offensive more often than not.

The once sure-footed Bush, in contrast, has stumbled more than at almost any time since he began his campaign for the presidency in 1999. Recently, he has been distracted from his game plan and on the defensive repeatedly.

Leading up to Labor Day, polls showed the race up for grabs. A Gallup poll released last week showed Bush with 46% to Gore's 45%--a statistically insignificant lead. Hence the importance of the traditional Labor Day launch which, while all but obliterated by the round-the-calendar nature of presidential campaigning, still is recognized as opening the period when undecided voters turn their attention to politics.

Both candidates come into the fall sprint with a strong hold on their base, yet clutching less successfully at the undecided, largely moderate voters whose allegiances swing from one party to the other. Many of those voters reside in the upper Midwest, in places like Romeo's Macomb County, where the campaign was concentrated Monday and will be until election day.

Bush's effort Monday was the continuation of a two-day attempt to gain ground on Gore on the subject of presidential debates. Gore has long vowed to accept all debates--so long as Bush agrees to the three sessions proposed by a bipartisan presidential commission, which has organized such events since 1988. Democrats have needled Bush about his refusal to sign on to the three debates, which were scheduled for Oct. 3, 11 and 17.

Trying to turn the tables on Gore, Bush on Sunday proposed three debates--one on a Sept. 12 prime-time edition of NBC's "Meet the Press," another Oct. 3 on CNN's "Larry King Live" and the third on Oct. 17 in St. Louis, as scheduled by the commission.

Gore turned down Bush's proposal, arguing that the Republican nominee was trying to force him into little-watched, shorter debates. While the 90-minute presidential commission debates are carried by all networks, it was unknown whether competing networks would carry the 60-minute NBC and CNN broadcasts proposed by Bush. The normal viewing audiences for the two programs are scores of millions less than the number of voters who typically watch a multi-network debate.

At his first event of the day, a Labor Day rally in the Republican stronghold of Naperville, Ill., which is west of Chicago, GOP nominee Bush went after Gore.

"It's time to elect people who say what they mean and mean what they say when they tell the American people something," Bush told more than 1,000 cheering supporters.

Bush sounded his familiar policy themes, advocating a stronger military, the need for education reform and his long-standing pledge to bring "honor and integrity" into the Oval Office.

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