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Hard to Tell If He Was Kidding : Bush Praises His Rival’s Debating Skill

Times Political Writer

Is he being candid or coy? Worried or just teasing?

It was hard to tell Saturday as George Bush wrapped up a news conference on the lawn of his home by praising the debating skills of his Democratic opponent, Michael S. Dukakis.

“He’s probably a better debater. . . . He’s favored on the debates, there’s no question about it,” Bush said. “He’ll be good in the debates--that’s his thing.”

Bush added with a smile: “I’m trying to lower expectations.”

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The vice president’s campaign has said it wants only half as many debates as Dukakis would like--four instead of two--and wants them held no closer to the election than Oct. 17.

“We’re going to stay with that,” Bush said of his campaign’s demands.

At his informal press session, where he was accompanied by the family springer spaniel, Millie, Bush volunteered that he felt his campaign was running extra smoothly right now. And he fielded more than a dozen questions on topics from nuclear power to the unemployment rate.

‘Getting Through’

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“I think I’m getting through to the American people better than I was,” Bush said about his post-convention campaigning.

On other subjects, Bush, wearing khakis, a blue sports shirt and boat shoes, had this to say:

--Nuclear power. He said he supported federal regulations stripping individual states of the right to block the siting of nuclear power plants.

“I don’t think any state governor should have veto power over our national security,” Bush said. In the past, Bush has described independence from imported oil as a matter of national security.

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--Unemployment. Bush defended an earlier statement that the 0.2 percentage point rise in the unemployment rate announced Friday was “statistically almost irrelevant. I wouldn’t form a conclusion based on one month.”

--Jobs. In his New Orleans acceptance speech, Bush made a controversial call for creating 30 million new jobs in the next Administration, almost twice the 17 million jobs that were created during the last 7 1/2 years.

Asked if the 30 million goal was realistic, Bush said, “That is what it is--a goal. . . . Let’s shoot for the moon.”

--The environment. Within the councils of the Reagan Administration, Bush said: “Yes, many times I expressed my concerns about the environment.”

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Dukakis has accused Bush of an election-year conversion to the environmental cause. And one environmentalist group has given Bush a grade of “Z” for his record.

“I think that rating will go up when they understand my personal commitment,” Bush said.

--Narcotics. Bush acknowledged that narcotics smuggling has increased in the United States during his tenure as the Administration’s head of interdiction efforts.

“There has been an increase but I think the question ought to be, is interdiction working?” He answered yes, as evidenced by the mounting tonnage of confiscated drugs.

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Hosted Barbecue

Following his news conference, Bush, his wife, Barbara, and an assortment of other members of the family played host at a hamburger-and-hot-dog barbecue for the traveling press corps at the vice president’s residence.

Bush, whose relations with reporters run hot and cold, appears to be using his hospitality not only to showcase the human side of himself but to satisfy reporters’ desires to be able to question the candidate. On most campaign days, press access to the vice president is virtually nonexistent, as the campaign tries to keep the news focus on subjects of Bush’s choice.

The vice president plans to spend today relaxing at home. On Monday, the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the campaign, he is scheduled to appear at events in San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles during a one-day trip to California.

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