BURBANK, Calif. (AP) â€” George W. Bush took a final turn at late night TV campaign comedy with Halloween gibes at Al Gore â€” then defended his readiness for the White House, saying the Democrats' challenge to his experience is ``what they said about Ronald Reagan when that good man was running for president.''
The vice president was appearing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Tuesday, after a daylong offensive against Bush in the Midwest and a redeye flight to campaign in Portland, Ore., and in California.
The experience question has become a Democratic theme against Bush.
``He's not ready to be president,'' vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman repeated at a Wisconsin rally with Gore on Monday.
Gore said in Muskegon, Mich., that in the Nov. 7 election ``prosperity itself will be on the ballot'' because Bush's tax cut and other plans would wreck it.
``My opponent gives in to the powerful interests and I believe his plans would leave millions of families worse off than they are today,'' the vice president said.
Gore declared himself ``opposed to big government,'' and promised again that he would not add even one position to the federal bureaucracy.
In the West, Bush was telling a rally in New Mexico and two in California Monday night that Gore stands for big government and for decisions made in Washington instead of by the people.
He said Gore is the one who would threaten economic growth by seeking 280 new or expanded federal programs and the costs that would go with them.
Bush said sardonically that Gore ``might be exaggerating'' in promising no new federal jobs, because the Senate Budget Committee â€” run by Republicans â€” estimates his programs would take 20,000 to 30,000 new bureaucrats.
Bush said Gore is the one ``surrounded and supported by interest groups that exist to oppose reform.''
As for experience, the Texas governor told Leno in his Monday night appearance that ``some folks believe you have to spend all your life in Washington in order to be qualified to be the president,'' and he does not.
``In all seriousness ... that's what they said about Ronald Reagan when that good man was running for president. But those kind of folks forget that when you're a governor, you have to lead.''
Bush's performance wasn't all seriousness, though. He joked about his tendency to muff lines and mispronounce names. ``Too bad all the world leaders aren't named Al Smith,'' Bush said.
He'd mangled one of his standard campaign lines earlier in Albuquerque, saying that Gore believes the surplus belongs to the people when he meant to say the vice president thinks it's the government's money. ``Excuse me,'' he told the rally before correcting himself. ``There I go again.''
Taping the Tonight Show, Bush said he tries to keep in shape by running, and covers a mile in about 7 1/2 minutes. ``Have you challenged Al Gore to a foot race?'' Leno asked him.
``I'd be willing to put it all on a foot race,'' Bush replied.
``Now, I have a Halloween mask I think you might get a kick out of,'' Leno said. He put on a Bush mask. ``That's scary,'' the governor said, and put on a Gore mask. ``This is more scary'' he said.
Bush told his California crowds that he will upset Gore in the state crucial to the Democrats. Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the last president elected without winning California, and before that, it was John F. Kennedy in 1960.
The governor tried to identify himself with Reagan, who went from the Sacramento state house to the White House, on the experience question and by likening his proposed across-the-board tax cut to Reagan's of 1981.
Sen. John McCain, who as a primary rival had himself questioned Bush's readiness, called the Democratic challenge to the governor's experience ``the latest sort of desperation tactic.''
``I promise you, I know, that this man is fully prepared,'' McCain told the Bush rallies in Burbank and Fresno.
Gore still leads the California polls, but by narrowed margins that led him to spend a final campaign day in territory he thought safely his. He campaigned first in Oregon, which had been a reliably Democratic state but is close this time, with Bush leading some surveys by a margin smaller than Ralph Nader's share of support.
``The polls have a margin of error of plus or minus one Ralph Nader,'' Leno said, in a joke that is not a laughing matter to the Democrats, who fear the Green Party candidate could pry away ballots Gore needs in a close race with Bush.
Bush was seeking votes in San Jose, before flying north to Portland and then on to Seattle. For Gore, it was the opposite direction, Portland to Burbank, to campaign in Los Angeles and appear on the Leno show.
Then another redeye flight for the vice president, east to Florida, a state Bush once thought safe, but one in which Gore leads some surveys. Jeb Bush, the nominee's brother, is governor there.
``I think we're going to do fine down there,'' Bush told Leno, ``but little brother, he recognizes that Thanksgiving might be a little chilly if things don't go well.''
In Fresno, Bush ignited a roar of boos when he mentioned that President Clinton is coming to California Thursday and Friday to campaign for the Democrats.
``It's OK, it's OK,'' he said. ``Just reminds people that we don't need four more years of Clinton-Gore.''
Leno asked Bush about Clinton's role.
``Well, you know the vice president was fighting to get out from behind his shadow and now the shadow returns.
``I don't think it can help him,'' Bush said.