Gore, Bush Seek Crucial Fla. Votes

Sunday, October 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Al Gore accused Republican rivals Saturday of ``abandoning the issues'' and launching a harsh personal assault against him because they are out of step on the issues as George W. Bush told a crowd in Florida that ``seniors know who to trust.''

``They're making a sustained, personal, negative attack of a kind they resort to when the American people don't agree with them on the issues,'' Gore said. ``I think the American people are interested in the issues.''

Gore spoke during a conference call with reporters where he wanted to preview a focus on education issues leading up to next week's second presidential debate. But he was peppered with questions about GOP assaults on his credibility.

Bush and running mate Dick Cheney have attacked Gore in recent days for what they see as campaign exaggerations that put Gore's credibility in question.

Bush, campaigning on both coasts of Florida, accused his rival of advocating ``Hillary-care'' and ``playing politics with our seniors.''

He campaigned at a community college in New Port Richey, on Florida's west coast, and later at a boisterous rally in Melbourne, on the Atlantic coast of a competitive state he very much needs to win.

The Texas governor said the Democratic ticket was trying ``to scare people at the voting booth'' by demonizing his tax-cut and Medicare overhaul proposals. ``The seniors know who to trust in this campaign,'' he declared.

At the New Port Richey appearance, Bush said Gore ``does not want our seniors to be able to have the choices that we envision.''

``Do you know why? Because he likes Hillary-care. He wants to nationalize the health care of America,'' Bush told an audience at a community college in New Port Richey on Florida's west coast. It was a taunting reference to the failed health insurance overhaul that had been pushed in President Clinton's first term by his wife, Hillary.

In Washington, meanwhile, Gore's vice presidential running mate, Joseph Lieberman, attended the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political organization.

``The frontier of equality is here in this room,'' he said. ``We're all entitled to respect, we're all entitled to dignity, we're all entitled to equality, black or white, man or woman, gay or straight.''

Lieberman promised that a Gore administration would give gay men and lesbians federal civil rights protections for the first time.

In earlier assaults on Gore's credibility, Bush and Cheney pointed to the Democratic nominee's reference to a Florida schoolgirl forced to stand because her classroom was overcrowded, noting that the girl had to stand only briefly. In addition, they point to inaccuracies in Gore comments about making an inspection tour with disaster head James Lee Witt.

On Saturday Gore argued he had gotten a letter from the girl's father and she really was forced to stand. ``I stand by that,'' said Gore, arguing it speaks directly to the issue of overcrowded schools. ``That's a real issue,'' said Gore.

Of the Witt comment, Gore said simply ``that was a mistake'' though he had made more than a dozen other such inspection trips.

Democratic internal polls and the CNN-USA Today-Gallup tracking poll suggest that the renewed focus on Gore's credibility may have helped Bush gain ground. The Republican had a 48 percent to 41 percent edge over Gore in the Gallup tracking poll with a 4-point error margin, after Gore had a lead earlier in the week. Other polls out late this week showed the two candidates in a very close race.

Gore said he had no plans to fire back in a similar vein, though he pointedly noted that Bush is guilty of some misstatements. Bush once said Gore had outspent him on the campaign trail, when that isn't the case.

``I don't describe that as fictitious or an exaggeration,'' said Gore. ``It's just a mistake. It's the kind he makes on a regular basis.''

In a struggle for the campaign's agenda, Gore said he wants to see education issues play a bigger role in next week's debate, while Bush said he wants to make Gore's credibility central.

Gore noted Bush said recently he wanted to refocus the campaign on issues.

``They have now completely abandoned that strategy,'' said Gore. ``They are abandoning the issues.''

During Bush's campaigning Saturday, the Republican nominee offered a reminder of his most vulnerable point — command of policy detail.

At one point, Bush became tangled and lost his way as he rattled off various figures and percentages to try to show why his tax-cut plan benefited certain lower-income individuals more than Gore's.

He paused, then turned to younger brother Jeb, who is the governor of Florida, and asked, ``does that add up?'' Finally, Bush gave up entirely and, laughing at himself, began to spout a series of random numbers.

``That's fuzzy math,'' he joked, referring to a line he used during Tuesday's debate to characterize Gore's criticism of GOP tax-cut plans.

Gore was taking time off only briefly before returning to Florida to prepare for Wednesday's debate. Gore was focusing on his education proposals in events leading up to the debate.

``Education was the subject of only one question in the first debate,'' said Gore. ``I hope it will receive much greater focus on the next debate.''

In addition, Gore said he planned a conference call with a panel of voters he has met around the country, who advise him on debate tactics.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Associated Press writer Tom Raum in Melbourne, Fla. contributed to this story.