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Bush, in San Diego, Stresses Defense, Education


SAN DIEGO — Texas Gov. George W. Bush trumpeted his military and education agendas on Friday as he moved to put behind him a series of distractions from the themes of his presidential campaign. The Republican presidential nominee laid out his plans for a military buildup while speaking at a Balboa Park ceremony to honor prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.

And a day after President Clinton announced he would visit Vietnam in November, Bush promised to make a full accounting of those who disappeared during the war "a top priority."

"I will place this matter high on America's diplomatic agenda, making it clear to all countries concerned that this is a test of good faith in their dealings with the United States of America," he told about 200 supporters, some in uniform, on a hillside in the park.

He said he would seek information about missing servicemen from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China, North Korea and Russia.

While praising those who served in Southeast Asia, he singled out Sen. John McCain of Arizona, his leading opponent in the Republican presidential primaries. McCain, a fighter pilot in Vietnam, and others held captive in Hanoi prison camps, Bush said, "are the best we have, witnesses of adversity and examples of true courage."

"Most of us can only imagine being completely at the mercy of the enemy, not knowing what tomorrow might bring," he said. "We can only imagine, and we can only marvel at the courage of those who overcame."

In a speech punctuated by the roar of jets swooping down to the airport at the bottom of the hill, Bush also promised to tackle a litany of problems with the military, including low pay, poor housing, shortages of spare parts and "rapidly declining readiness."

"These are difficult days for our military, and they will not continue," he said.

"I will make it clear that the role of the United States military is to be properly trained so that we can fight and win war if necessary, and therefore keep the peace," he said.

Bush's message resonated with some of those gathered at the veterans memorial where he spoke.

"That feeling of being stretched thin has really hurt morale," said retired Navy Lt. Tom Armstrong of Lakeside, east of San Diego.

Bush's military speech, and a visit to a San Diego school, enabled him to stay focused on themes overshadowed this week by issues unhelpful to his campaign.

On Thursday, he capitulated in his standoff over debates with Vice President Al Gore and agreed to the three encounters proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates. And a controversy erupted Tuesday over a split-second flash of "rats"--an enlarged portion of the word "bureaucrats"--in a Republican Party television ad that attacked Gore.

At Central Elementary School here, Bush visited a third-grade classroom where the teacher, Eric Dent, was reading to the kids from "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day."

"Have you ever had a bad day before?" Bush asked.

"Yes," several youngsters responded. Bush didn't say if the title reflected his week.

His running mate, Dick Cheney, spent part of the day in Denver, where, at Jeffco Airport, he also spoke about shoring up the military and pledged once again to restore "the kind of government we can all be proud of again."

As he began to speak, a small plane flew overhead, dragging behind a banner with what has become Cheney's trademark line on the trail: "Help is on the way!"


Times staff writer Megan Garvey contributed to this story.

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