Bush tours South as gap fades in poll


BRANSON, Mo. -- A resurgent President Bush said yesterday he would use the "great lift" he got from his convention to "take the battle to the opposition," but he headed straight for friendly turf.

A CBS-New York Times poll taken during Mr. Bush's acceptance speech Thursday night showed the president has nearly erased the 20-point gap that developed after the Democratic National Convention. In the poll released yesterday, Mr. Bush rebounded to within 2 percentage points of rival Bill Clinton.

The poll's four-point margin of error indicated that the race may have become a dead heat.

But the state of his re-election campaign is still so precarious that Mr. Bush is moving fast to shore up what should be solid Republican territory in the South with a three-day trip to Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia and back to Texas.

"I will take on the governor of Arkansas; I will define him, and we will win," the president told an enthusiastic crowd of about 10,000 supporters at the Silver Dollar country and western amusement park here, less than 15 miles from the Arkansas border. "Come November, my opponent and his saxophone will be playing on old Buck Owens classic: 'It's Crying Time Again.' "

This Bible Belt community, like the president's other stops, is known for its strong support for the military, conservatism on social issues and a healthy Republican vote in recent elections.

Earlier, at a seaside gathering in Gulfport, Miss., complete with a blues band and Southern belles in antebellum gowns, Mr. Bush told about 5,000 supporters wilting in the steamy midday heat, "I am delighted to be back in this place, which has sound family values, great tradition and believes in a strong America."

This post-convention victory tour bears little resemblance to the bus trips taken by what Mr. Bush ridiculed as the "twin ticket" of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore.

The Republican incumbent is traveling by Air Force One, and the small towns on his route tend to be comfortable suburbs rather than the blue-collar factory and farm communities on the Democrats' itinerary.

Last night, Mr. Bush mixed and mingled with country music fans here at Mo Bandy's Americana Theater on Branson's strip of brand new "oprys" that aspire to the traditions of Nashville, Tenn. Pork rinds, which Mr. Bush claimed to enjoy in 1988 to demonstrate his country tastes, reappeared yesterday afternoon at the Ozark amusement park.

The president is expected at some point to make a whistle-stop tour by train to emulate his new hero, Harry S. Truman. But there will probably be only one, and it will be brief because train travel for presidents is very expensive.

But pressure to copy Mr. Clinton's highly successful road trips is what forced Mr. Bush out on the campaign trail so early, instead of waiting for the traditional Labor Day start of the general election race.

He greeted supporters yesterday with a reprise of the best lines from his acceptance speech, adding a new Elvis joke in Mississippi (he said Mr. Clinton's tax increase proposal should be marked "Return to Sender") and stressing that despite the "crazy reports," he is "blessed with good health."

The president made no reference to his proposal for across-the-board tax cuts and only brief mention of his plan to allow taxpayers to direct up to 10 percent of their taxes to paying off the federal debt.

No further details of the proposals were available yesterday, and the president's campaign manager said there would be no more specifics until Mr. Bush is ready to present the legislation to the newly elected Congress after his own election.

If enacted, both proposals would force deep cuts in domestic spending, particularly such entitlements as Medicare, Medicaid, farm price supports and veterans benefits.

The tax check-off could route more than $50 billion to debt reduction, and Mr. Bush has insisted that the amount must be offset by comparable spending cuts.

Many supporters at his rallies yesterday were foggy on how this would work but said they found his ideas appealing. "I like it," Mary Predergast of Gautier, Miss., said of the tax check-off. "It puts the power back into the people's hands instead of the government's."

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