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Bush Pounces on Gore Story

Politics: The governor says he's disturbed by a report questioning the vice president on fund-raising. Democrats call the accusation 'recycled.'


NEWPORT BEACH — Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush charged Thursday that his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, "may have crossed a serious line" by soliciting campaign donations allegedly tied to a presidential veto.

Bush's latest effort to raise doubts about Gore's ethics came in the midst of a three-day swing through Southern California to campaign and raise money for the Republican Party.

In a speech beamed by satellite to a National Guard conference in Atlantic City, N.J., Bush promised to "restore the bond of trust between the president and all Americans."

"Just today there are new revelations about the potential misuse of the White House for fund-raising purposes, new evidence that my opponent may have crossed a serious line, solicitation of campaign contributions linked to a presidential veto," Bush said from his hotel here.

"The appearance is really disturbing. Americans are tired of investigations and scandal, and the best way to get rid of them is to elect a new president who will bring a new administration, who will restore honor and dignity to the White House."

Bush was referring to a story published Thursday that said Gore attended a dinner in 1995 with Texas lawyers who opposed a bill passed by Congress.

The bill, later vetoed by President Clinton, would have cut the amount of money that people injured by faulty products could win in lawsuits.

Gore was asked to call several of the lawyers and solicit $100,000 donations to the party, according to the published reports.

Two weeks later, Donald L. Fowler, then Democratic national chairman, asked one of the lawyers, Walter Umphrey, for a $100,000 donation. An aide had written a memo saying Fowler should talk to Umphrey about giving "$100K when the president vetoes tort reform," the newspaper reported. Gore, an aide said, had never called Umphrey.

Gore campaign spokesman Douglas Hattaway said Bush "has obviously become desperate."

"Instead of talking about the issues, he's dredging up allegations that have nothing to do with this election," he said. "Working families want to hear specifics about the issues that affect their lives, not tired old personal attacks."

Democratic Party officials gave the memo three years ago to the Justice Department and to the congressional committees that were looking into campaign fund-raising abuses.

"We're starting to wonder how many times they can recycle the same old things," said Jennifer Backus, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.

"It seems questionable showing up now in the eleventh hour of an election when the Republicans have started to melt down and are in disarray."

She said it was "unfortunate that this language was written the way it was" in the memo, written by a young finance staffer, not a senior official. "Obviously the DNC doesn't believe in giving quid pro quos."

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno sidestepped the question of whether the Justice Department was reviewing the allegation.

"As you know, I don't comment on whether we've opened or haven't opened an investigation," she told reporters at her weekly briefing. "But I can suggest that as we approach the election, I think there will be more issues like this raised, and we should be very careful. We're going to review everything that comes up, if there is anything based on the evidence and the law."

After his speech, Bush headed to Santa Ana for one of several events on the California trip that are aimed at playing up his theme of an "inclusive" Republican Party.

A day after surrounding himself with Asian Americans at a rally in Little Saigon in Westminster, he fielded questions from mainly Latino and Asian American students in the library at Santa Ana High School.

The students' first four questions were on sex education.

"The best sex education takes place at home," Bush said. "I think schools ought to be focused on reading and adding and subtracting."

"Are you against sex?" Tina Nguyen, 17, asked Bush.

"I didn't say that," he responded. Sex education, he said, should encourage abstinence.

From Santa Ana, Bush went to the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. In the evening, he attended a Republican fund-raiser in San Diego.

Overall, Bush's trip to California was expected to yield more than $1.2 million for the party's state and national committees. On Wednesday, Bush was the main attraction at fund-raisers in Irvine and Newport Beach.

In polls of California voters, Bush has consistently trailed Gore. President Clinton won the state in 1992 and 1996, and with its 54 electoral votes, it is key to Gore's strategy for winning the White House.

But Bush is sensitive to the fears of GOP officials in California that he will abandon the state the way his father, President Bush, did in 1992. So he's trying to help the state party win closely contested congressional races that are crucial to the GOP's hopes of keeping control of the House of Representatives.

Bush's fund-raising is aimed at helping Republicans shrink, if not topple, the Democrats' majority in the state Assembly and Senate to gain influence over the redrawing of district lines for the Legislature and California's seats in Congress.

"All of that is at risk if George W. Bush walks off the California stage," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at Claremont Graduate University.


Times staff writers Robert L. Jackson and Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.

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