In his most personal attack yet on his Democratic foe, President Bush on Saturday raised the issue of Bill Clinton's youthful marijuana use and again suggested that his rival's failure to serve in the armed forces would make him a less capable commander in chief.
Bush broached the marijuana issue by questioning whether Clinton could be believed when he makes campaign promises.
"This guy couldn't remember in detail that he didn't inhale 20 years ago, and he can't remember what came out of his mouth 20 minutes ago," the President said as he stumped for votes in Florida, a state critical to his reelection hopes.
It was the first time Bush had so directly brought up a problem that dogged the Arkansas governor in the spring--his acknowledgment that he had tried marijuana while studying at Oxford University in Britain, but that he had not inhaled.
Clinton's acknowledgment occurred after he had been responding for months to questions about drug use by saying he had never broken the laws of the United States.
Bush's comment also spoke to a central theme of his campaign: That regardless of mistakes he himself has made, the state of the nation's economy or what each candidate would do to improve matters, Clinton cannot be trusted.
The President's latest television ad has gone directly to this point, capitalizing on conflicting statements Clinton has been making on whether he would support the North American Free Trade Agreement (Clinton is expected to announce today or Monday that he does back it, with qualifications), how he managed to avoid the military draft in the late 1960s and whether he supported the congressional resolution that authorized the U.S.-led effort to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Seizing on that latter issue Saturday, Bush noted that while Clinton, in comments shortly before the Persian Gulf War started, said he supported the military campaign, he also expressed agreement with the minority that voted in Congress to delay launching the attack against Iraq.
"This is crazy. You cannot act like that as a commander in chief," Bush said.
To an enthusiastic airport crowd in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Bush said his opponent was suffering from "Clinton-esia," a disease, he said, marked by "weakness, sweaty palms and an incredible desire to say anything on all sides of every issue, depending on who you are trying to please."
He added: "I think I've finally figured out why (Clinton) compares himself to Elvis. The minute he has to take a stand on something he starts wiggling."
Standing in front of a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber similar to the one in which he was shot down over the Pacific during World War II, Bush said his military service "shaped my character" and made him a "better commander in chief."
"I do believe that serving in uniform is a good criterion for being commander in chief of the armed forces," he said, echoing comments he previously has made.
To reinforce his attack on Clinton, Bush brought with him Gerald McRaney, the actor who plays a Marine Corps officer on the television program "Major Dad."
McRaney, 45, questioned Clinton's loyalty to the United States at the Ft. Lauderdale rally. In an apparent reference to Clinton's opposition to the Vietnam War and his effort to avoid the military draft during that period, McRaney said that although he was a member of Clinton's generation, "I stayed loyal to our country."
Questioned by reporters later, McRaney said he never served in the military. He said he sought to sign up during the Vietnam War era but was not accepted because at the time he was married and had a child.
Clinton, responding to the day's attacks on him, told a reporter that he felt "sorry" for Bush.
"I think that that sort of demeaning talk doesn't do him any good and only shows the American people how desperate he is to hold onto his job," Clinton said as he attended a dinner in Washington, D.C.
The President's travels in Florida took him from Clearwater on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, to hurricane-ravaged Homestead south of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale on the Atlantic coast and Orlando in the central part of the state--an extraordinary effort at this stage in the campaign, given that Bush carried the state with 61% of the vote four years ago.
Bush now finds himself struggling to hold onto the base of Republican and conservative Democratic voters who fueled GOP victories in three consecutive presidential contests.
As part of his efforts to solidify that base, he campaigned Saturday among the transplants--largely from the Midwest--who have retired to the west coast of Florida. As he did so, he sought to link Clinton to his 1988 opponent, Michael S. Dukakis.
"Remember Mike Dukakis, the tank driver?" he asked about 1,000 people at the "On Top of the World" condominiums in Clearwater, referring to a widely used photograph of the Massachusetts governor during the 1988 campaign. "Well, Bill Clinton nominated him for President four years ago. And this year, according to an article in the New York Times, 39 of Gov. Clinton's economic proposals are virtually identical to the ideas Gov. Dukakis was pushing: higher taxes, more spending, a bigger deficit."
He also accused Clinton of "trying to scare America's seniors," referring to the Democrat's assertion earlier in the campaign that the Bush Administration was prepared to cut the federal Medicare budget. The President denied the charge.
Bush got a laugh from the retirees when, using one of his standard campaign lines, he attacked the entrenched members of Congress as "old geezers."
Bush continued his attacks on Clinton's economic plan, claiming that rather than raise taxes solely on the nation's wealthiest citizens, the Democrat would turn to "the middle-class people who always get the shaft."
"To get the money that he needs for this plan, the $150 billion that he's promised in new taxes--he would have to get his money from every individual with taxable income over $36,600," Bush said. "And that is a fact."
Clinton and his campaign aides have strongly disputed that claim, which was first aired in one of the President's latest television ads. Stories on the ad by several newspapers, including The Times, found that the Bush claim was based on a suspect analysis of Clinton's economic proposals. Clinton himself has branded the ad "blatantly false" and "outrageous."
Bush said Saturday: "Bill Clinton can protest all he wants, but his numbers do not add up."
The day also brought a reminder of the advantages an incumbent can bring to the race. The President announced in Clearwater that he would move the hurricane-tracking planes of the National Oceanic and Aeronautics Administration from Miami International Airport to MacDill Air Force Base in nearby Tampa--a move that will keep the MacDill runways operating and boost its chances of surviving future base-closings.
The move to MacDill, Bush said, will "provide a major boost to the area's economy."
Today on the Trail . . .
Gov. Bill Clinton campaigns in Raleigh and Kinston, N.C.
President Bush is in Washington, D.C.
Ross Perot has no public events scheduled.
James B. Stockdale is a guest on C-SPAN call-in show at 8:30 a.m.
Bush is a guest on CNN's "Larry King Live" program at 6 p.m.