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Bush Camp Denies Allegations on Debate Tape Leak, Presses for Expanded Probe


The bizarre case of the pilfered debate video took another strange twist Tuesday as the George W. Bush campaign denied that its chief strategist leaked the materials to Al Gore's camp.

As the FBI continued its investigation, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Bush urged federal authorities to expand their probe beyond Bush headquarters. At the same time, communications director Karen Hughes called the accusations against Karl Rove "absurd" and a partisan smear of the longtime Bush loyalist.

"Karl Rove has worked around the clock for years, working to support Gov. Bush and to elect Gov. Bush president," Hughes told reporters at a campaign stop in Redwood City, Calif. "I ask you to consider the source."

The charges against Rove were first leveled publicly by Molly Beth Malcolm, who chairs the Texas Democratic Party. She recalled another odd bit of campaign intrigue--this one involving allegations that Rove planted a bugging device in his own office--back in the 1986 governor's race.

"There's a history here and a pattern," Malcolm said in an interview Tuesday. "Let the people of this country draw their own conclusions."

Rove was unavailable for comment. But Hughes' angry response and her complaint about the scope of the federal probe underscored the growing partisanship surrounding the investigation into how the video of a Bush debate-preparation session and other campaign materials landed in the hands of Tom Downey, a friend and campaign advisor to Vice President Gore.

Malcolm and other Democrats suggest the materials were leaked as part of a political sting operation aimed at trapping Gore in possession of confidential information. The two presidential candidates will meet in the first of three high-stakes debates on Tuesday.

Downey, a former New York congressman who played Bush in Gore's early debate rehearsals, received a package on Sept. 13 containing a videotape of the GOP nominee practicing in his own mock debate. Along with campaign documents, there was also a note suggesting other sensitive materials could be furnished, a person close to the investigation said Tuesday.

Downey immediately turned the materials over to the FBI, which has focused its preliminary investigation in and around Bush's campaign headquarters in Austin, Texas. It is still unclear whether any laws were broken or if the federal agency even has jurisdiction over the matter.

Still, the preliminary probe has become a source of bitter contention between the two campaigns.

On Tuesday, Hughes said the FBI has improperly limited the focus of its investigation. "We think it's incomplete when they only talk to Bush campaign people," she said, pointing out that the Gore campaign suspended a junior staffer who bragged--jokingly, he later said--of having a "mole" in the Bush operation.

"I would suggest that a thorough and complete investigation of how Bush materials ended up in the Gore campaign involves both the Bush and Gore campaigns," said Hughes, who added that she and other staffers would be willing to submit to polygraph tests.

In an interview Tuesday night with CNN's Larry King, Bush said he was baffled by the tape mystery. "I tell you, it's not one of my supporters," he said. "Somebody who is for me is not going to be sending tapes to the Gore campaign."

Asked about reports that Rove was the culprit, Bush impatiently brushed the question away. "Yeah, right," he said.

Asked about the scope of the probe, Douglas Hattaway, a Gore spokesman, said: "This matter is in the hands of professional investigators at the FBI. We're comfortable with that. For some reason, the Bush campaign is not."

In pointing a finger at Rove, Malcolm recalled an episode from the 1986 Texas governor's race, which pitted incumbent Democrat Mark White against Republican Bill Clements.

Hours before their first debate, news broke that a matchbox-size recording device had been discovered behind a framed needlepoint--a red, white and blue elephant--in Rove's Austin office. Rove, who worked for Clements, blamed the White campaign for planting the bug, calling it evidence that "the opposition would say anything and do anything to win an election"--language the Bush camp now uses to describe Gore.

Democrats accused Rove of planting the bug himself in an effort to tar White's image. Rove has denied the charge. An FBI investigation proved inconclusive and the source of the bug remains a mystery.

Ironically, two of the adversaries in that race are now both working for Bush: Democrat Mark McKinnon, White's media consultant, is now creating advertisements for the Texas governor. He could not be reached Tuesday for comment.


Times staff writers Maria L. La Ganga and Eric Lichtblau contributed to this report.

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