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Candidates Offer Likely Glimpse of Debate Plans

Strategy: Laying the groundwork for next month's encounters, Bush and Gore present their visions of the economy-- which differ sharply.


WASHINGTON — With the presidential campaign moving into its crucial debate phase, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush presented sharply different visions of the economy Thursday and are likely to do the same today on energy and the environment.

The two are laying foundations for their competing presentations to the nation next week, and Gore is taking the unusual step of inviting what an aide called "working Americans" to his debate training camp to help him prepare.

On Thursday, Gore offered an audience of scholars a broad-brush picture of his economic policy. He cast himself as the protector of the nation's well-being and said that on election day "prosperity itself will be on the ballot."

Bush, campaigning in Green Bay, Wis., sought to tar Gore as a big spender.

"If the vice president gets elected, the era of big government being 'over' is over, and so too, I fear, could be our prosperity," he said.

He accused Gore of "proposing the largest increase in federal spending in 35 years, since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson," and said: "That staggering level of spending is one major difference between my opponent and me."

Today, in the heart of the Michigan auto country, Bush is expected to pitch his plan to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Gore and virtually all environmental groups say this would risk one of the nation's greatest wildernesses for a relatively small amount of oil.

Gore plans to polish his credentials as an environmentalist during a visit to a National Audubon Society preserve in a leafy Washington suburb. His running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, plans to use a Houston oil refinery as a backdrop for an attack on Bush's environmental policies in a city that has been derided as the smoggiest in the country.

But for all the heated talk on the campaign trail about social issues--Medicare and Social Security, education and the environment--campaign professionals recognize that bracing the voters' decisions will be this central question: Which candidate is most likely to continue the good times and improve the lot of those who have been left behind?

Gore used the address at the Brookings Institution here to make that point, to renew his argument against the $1.3-trillion, 10-year tax cut that is the centerpiece of Bush's economic policy and to preview the approach he is likely to follow in Tuesday's debate, the first of three.

As framed by both candidates, the argument about the economy comes down to choices about how to use the federal budget surplus, figured at slightly more than $4 trillion over 10 years.

Gore would use it to help eliminate the national debt and would direct $500 billion in tax cuts to help middle-income taxpayers pay for college tuition and health care, among other needs. Bush argues that the surplus should be returned to taxpayers in the form of the larger tax cut he advocates and that this would fuel economic growth.

Gore envisions eliminating the national debt by 2012 for the first time in nearly 200 years and thus reducing, and then eliminating, the interest payments that go with it. Those payments, he said, amount to the "third-largest federal program," taking up more of the country's budget than any program other than Social Security and defense.

With the spending and tax priorities he has outlined, Gore said, "within eight years, the government spending would be the smallest share of national income that it's been in 50 years."

The speech at Brookings, an 80-year-old public policy research center, was long on themes, short on specifics and just plain short. It ran only 14 minutes, and the vice president took no questions from the audience of experts.

Also Thursday, during an appearance with his wife, Tipper, on "Larry King Live," Gore brushed off questions about his tendency to exaggerate.

"Oh, I think that in itself is an exaggeration," Gore responded after King brought up the matter.

"I think that, in a campaign, when you get a fact wrong, all of a sudden you're accused of, you know, committing some horrible offense."

Lieberman, spending much of Thursday in Washington, used the Capitol as a backdrop and, with dozens of Democratic legislators as his chorus, echoed Gore's daily denunciation of Bush's tax cut proposal.

Bush, he said, was "signing blank checks on an account his tax cuts have already depleted."

Bush, in a continuing effort to raise doubts about the outlook for the nation's economy if Democrats remain in the White House, issued one of his harshest attacks in recent weeks, saying of a President Gore: "In four short years, he would leave obligations that would haunt our children for generations."

Among them, by Bush's accounting:

About 20,000 to 30,000 bureaucrats added to the federal payroll, 412 new Medicare regulations, a Medicare bureaucracy doubled in size and additional IRS agents performing more audits of taxpayers.

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