Continuing his aggressive strategy of responding to barbs emanating from the Republican Convention, Democrat Bill Clinton chided President Bush Wednesday for allowing other GOP leaders to attack his wife, Hillary.
"You'd think (Bush) was running for First Lady instead of for President," Clinton said at the Atlanta airport before departing for his home in Little Rock, Ark., where he celebrated his 46th birthday Wednesday night.
Bush, meanwhile, suggested in an interview on ABC-TV that Hillary Clinton was a legitimate campaign target.
"I don't like going after the wife," Bush said. But he added: "I think if the wife is in the arena, and if they're saying you get 2-for-1, and here's my views as a defender of children or the running of a foundation, I think that's slightly different than if a person is not injecting oneself into the issue business."
Clinton, for his part, recoiled from what he described as Republican efforts to depict his wife as a potential "co-President." He said: "That's pathetic; neither she nor I ever said that."
And, in an interview on NBC-TV, Clinton said Bush had "bragged on Hillary for years to me," and once sent a note complimenting her for increasing his awareness of the nation's infant mortality problem.
Clinton also said the Republicans have "radically distorted her views, deliberately and dramatically distorted her views. And George Bush knows that."
Hillary Clinton, a lawyer with a national reputation for her work on children's issues, has been targeted for criticism by numerous Republicans at their convention in Houston who regard her brand of feminism as radical.
In firing back at the GOP, Clinton also charged that it has been taken over by what he termed "the extreme intolerant right wing" of the party.
"You look at who has been featured" at this week's convention, Clinton said. "It's the Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly wing of the party. They control it now. They've got George Bush right where they want him."
The conservative wing of the party, he said, is trying to make working women, such as his wife, into "a Willie Horton-like issue."
Clinton began his day by joining his running mate, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, and former Democratic President Jimmy Carter in helping to build a home for a poor family. Taking a break from the job, Clinton jabbed at the emerging Republican message that after a first term marked by foreign-policy successes, a second Bush Administration would focus on the home front.
"They're running on the Christopher Columbus theory," Clinton said. "Give us (another) term and we'll discover America."
Throughout the week, Clinton has made a point of breaking with the tradition that found presidential candidates lying low during their opposition's nominating convention.
Also, his reference Wednesday to Horton--the escaped black prisoner who was used in the 1988 campaign to pillory the 1988 Democratic nominee, Michael S. Dukakis, as soft on crime--underlined the strategy Clinton and his aides have followed in their comments.
With the '88 campaign as background, the Democrats have tried to remind voters at every turn of their argument that Bush is a candidate with a history of negative campaigning.
And, on the day that the GOP convention spotlighted its "family values" theme, Clinton put his own spin on that issue in a way that buttressed his defense of his wife.
"These are people who have made life much worse for most children and families in this country," he said at the Atlanta airport. "They haven't done anything to promote family values. My wife has worked 20 years trying to build up children and families in America."
The Democratic ticket's version of family day also proved a boon for 26-year-old Michelle Miller, a single black mother rearing her two preschool daughters on a bank clerk's wages. Clinton, Gore, their wives and five children spent the morning pounding nails and raising the walls of a new home for the Miller family.
The construction of the three-bedroom house in a wooded section of Atlanta is sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization started in 1976 to build shelter for indigent working families. Carter adopted the Habitat program as a pet project shortly after losing reelection in 1980 and recently invited Clinton and Gore to lend a hand for part of a day.
Although Clinton spent most of his time working, he could not resist drawing an obvious contrast between his efforts and the daily fusillade of attacks the Republicans have directed at him. "We thought this would be a good day to spend building and not tearing down," Clinton said. "We hope America wants two builders."
The activity also gave the Democratic candidates an opportunity to showcase their families' togetherness.
In one snapshot, Clinton helped his 13-year-old daughter, Chelsea, get a nail started when she hit a knot in the wood. Still, it did not appear that she ever quite got the hang of hammers and nails.
Later, in an almost grandfatherly way, Carter tried to teach the craft to her. And a third lesson came from Millard Fuller, the self-made millionaire who founded Habitat for Humanity.
Chelsea and Gore's four children were soon scampering around the home's roof tacking down tar paper.
The building project started about 7:30 a.m. after leaders of the Christian-based Habitat program led the group--which included about 20 other volunteers--in a prayer and the singing of the religious spiritual "Kumbaya." Less than three hours later, the workers had raised the home's prefabricated wall frames, added siding and completed the roof.
The home was the 126th to be built in Atlanta since 1983 by the Habitat program. The homes cost about $35,000 to build and are sold at no profit and with no interest charged during a 25-year mortgage.
In addition to Clinton, Gore's wife, Mary Elizabeth (Tipper), celebrated a birthday Wednesday--her 44th.
Clinton and Gore will campaign separately today--both in the Midwest. They then will join forces Friday in Cleveland to begin their third bus trip since claiming their party's nomination at last month's Democratic Convention in New York.