On the Trail, Bush Moves to Put Out Fire From His Past

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As George W. Bush tried to quell controversy stemming from his 1976 drunken driving arrest, Al Gore on Friday sought to reinforce voters' questions about the governor's experience and credibility.

Vice President Gore resurrected Bush's Social Security gaffe from Thursday--when Bush mistakenly implied that Social Security was not a federal program.

"Do you want to entrust the Oval Office to somebody who doesn't even know that Social Security is a federal program?" the Democratic nominee asked supporters at Iowa State University.

For the second straight day, Gore launched a television ad questioning the Texas governor's readiness to serve as president. The newest commercial, airing only in the contested states of Pennsylvania and Florida, recounts Bush's Social Security remark and asks: "Is he ready to lead America?"

Subdued for much of the day, Bush sought to rally his crowds as usual, even as his campaign tried to contain the fallout from the arrest revelation and a Friday article on the Dallas Morning News' Web site alleging that in 1998 he had denied being arrested.

Bush alluded to the arrest while stumping in Michigan. "I've made mistakes in my life," he said. "But I'm proud to tell you, I've learned from those mistakes."

But for the most part, Bush continued to portray himself as a potential healer of Washington divisiveness.

"This country needs somebody to unite this nation, somebody to bring us together, somebody to clean house there in the nation's capital, and that's what this whole campaign's about," Bush told thousands of supporters at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.

Yet, in an indication of how the controversy may have narrowed Bush's options, at least Friday, he omitted his standard criticisms about Gore's past exaggerations. His running mate, Dick Cheney, twice Friday omitted his standard line about Bush returning "honor and integrity" to the White House.

Cheney did use the phrase in a third speech, after reporters asked campaign officials about the omission.

With national polls showing a narrow Bush lead--within the margins of sampling error--and polls in some key states favoring Gore, the stage was set for a titanic battle during the long campaign's last weekend. The Bush developments only added to the uncertainty over which way voters will go.

Even on Friday their travel schedules were verging on frantic, with Gore in Missouri, Iowa and Tennessee, and Bush making multiple stops in Michigan and West Virginia.

Gore spent Friday walking an exceedingly fine line--staying as far away as possible from the Bush controversy while egging on any doubts in voters' minds about the Texas governor's ability to run the nation.

Much of his firepower Friday was spent resurrecting Bush's Thursday remark that Washington insiders, like Gore, "want the federal government controlling the Social Security, like it's some kind of federal program."

Social Security is, of course, a federal program, and Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes later said the governor misspoke. Bush has proposed that younger workers be allowed to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes for retirement. He has also insisted that this can be done without cutting into the benefits to current retirees that those taxes help fund.

Gore has countered that Bush is setting young against old, and promising both generations the same pool of money--hence his gibes at Iowa State and at an earlier appearance in Kansas City, Mo.

"If Gov. Bush doesn't know that it's a federal program, maybe that explains why he thinks it's all right to take a trillion dollars out of the [Social Security] trust fund and play with it by promising it to two different groups of people," Gore said.

"I know that one plus one equals two, but one trillion, promised to two different groups of people, doesn't add up unless you use what kind of math?" Gore asked the crowd.

"Fuzzy math!" they shouted back, aping a favorite Bush insult of Gore.

The Democratic thrust was double-barreled, with vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman also contesting Bush's credentials. At a Greensburg, Pa., college campus, he accused Bush of having a "fundamental misperception of the world around us."

As much as he was criticizing Bush, Gore also tried to bolster his own credentials.

Gore Plays Up His Tennessee Roots

Gore insisted in Kansas City that he would be best equipped to maintain the nation's prosperity, and in his home state of Tennessee he implored voters to side with a native son.

"You know me, and you know that for 16 years [in Congress] I've represented this state faithfully and well, and I've worked hard," he said in Alcoa, just outside Knoxville. "Nine times, I've raised my hand and taken an oath to the Constitution, and I've never violated that oath."

If Gore was basking in the embrace of the eastern Tennessee crowd, Bush too was gaining sustenance from the huge outpourings that greeted him. In Saginaw, Mich., Bush grew uncharacteristically reflective after he walked onto the stage at the state university's gymnasium.

"In the course of a campaign, you know, you kind of get going and going and going, and all of a sudden, you wonder if you're tired. And then you walk into a place like this and the people lift your spirits," he said, drawing a sustained cheer from the crowd. "It makes us realize we're not alone in a quest to change America."

But Bush was hardly docile, riffling through Gore's record and proposals and vowing to win, wherever he went.

In Saginaw and earlier in Grand Rapids, he castigated the Clinton-Gore administration's treatment of the military. He pledged that he and former Defense Secretary Cheney would do better.

"The next president will inherit a military in decline," he said in Grand Rapids as he returned to a comfortable Republican theme. "But if the next president is George W. Bush, the days of decline will be over.

"Let's get something straight right now," Bush said. "To point out that our military has been overextended, taken for granted and neglected, that's no criticism of the military. This is criticism of a president and vice president and their record of neglect."

He also took heart from the fact that Gore and Clinton were to be campaigning in their home states as the campaign comes to a close.

"I figure that if we've got Bill Clinton back in Arkansas, and Al Gore back in Tennessee, we must be doing something right," he said.

Cheney Avoids Controversy

Bush's running mate, meanwhile, did not mention the drunken driving controversy during his campaign speeches.

His campaign aides said it was just happenstance that Cheney omitted remarks about "honor and integrity" in his first speeches Friday. "Sheer coincidence," said spokeswoman Juleanna Glover Weiss.

Bush campaign officials announced that Cheney and his Persian Gulf War compatriot Colin L. Powell will attend rallies in California on Sunday. Powell, a retired general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will appear with Cheney in San Diego and Orange counties before Cheney leaves for Pleasanton.

President Clinton wrapped up a two-day visit to California Friday that was scheduled with the same intent as the Powell trip: to boost the turnout of loyalists in an election that is likely to hinge on which party best rallies its voters to go to the polls.

The Democratic lead in California has lessened over the last several months, but the state still is more strongly Gore's than many of the Midwestern states or Florida, where the candidates will campaign for the last few days.

Also visiting California on Friday was Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who held a rally at the Long Beach Arena that attracted several thousand enthusiastic supporters.

The crowd cheered Nader as well as several celebrities, including former talk show host Phil Donahue and singers Michelle Shocked and Jackson Browne, who appeared on a stage decorated with pine trees.

Asked to reflect on high points of his longshot run for the White House, Nader alluded to former supporters who, fearful his campaign could hurt Gore and propel Bush to the White House, have asked him to end his candidacy. "One highlight is I know who my friends are."

Nader also said that, even if the Greens do collect 5% of the vote--enough to qualify for federal matching funds--his candidacy has jump-started a "major third-party watchdog group."

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Finnegan reported from the Gore campaign and La Ganga from the Bush campaign. Times staff writers Geoff Boucher and Matea Gold also contributed to this story, which was written by Times political writer Cathleen Decker.

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