JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Casting the election next Tuesday as a pivotal moment in the nation's history, Gov. Bill Clinton assailed President Bush's economic policies yesterday and told voters in key industrial states that "we can do better."
But he also sought to lift voters' sights beyond Election Day, and alternated his slashing attacks with more high-toned speeches to portray himself as a bold, serious leader with a vision.
In Jersey City last night, Mr. Clinton made his first major address on AIDS, a controversial topic to take on so late in a campaign.
He said that "we have still not done enough as a nation to stop the spread of AIDS" and to prevent it. He proposed appointing one person to coordinate the various federal programs and urged increased research, school-based education programs for children and treatment on demand for drug addicts who get and spread HIV by intravenous drug use.
Speaking before a group of 500 area residents at the courthouse in Jersey City, which has the sixth-highest per capita rate of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in the nation, Mr. Clinton also said he would fight discrimination against AIDS sufferers and work to assure them of insurance coverage, which many cannot afford or are prevented from obtaining.
Mr. Clinton said he favored telling children in school at the earliest possible time "how people get AIDS and how to avoid it." While expressing compassion for victims, he said people must "exercise personal responsibility" to avoid contracting the disease and to ensure that they don't transmit it.
He criticized the idea that AIDS affects only "gay men and IV drug users." The "truth is it is everybody's problem."
In Ohio, he told an enthusiastic audience at the University of Toledo that the election "will shape your future and the future of your children for generations."
Both approaches underscored Mr. Clinton's oft-repeated point yesterday that "we can do better," a rebuttal to Mr. Bush's assertion that the economy is improving and the nation is outpacing the rest of the world.
"When you get right down to it," Mr. Clinton said in Toledo, "this election is as old as America: a choice between between more of the same and fundamental change; a choice between those who believe we can do better and those who think things are all right the way they are; between those who have a limited view of our country and those who understand that America must still and always be a nation of boundless hopes and dreams."
Recognizing that his election chances depend on persuading voters that change is worth the risk of new leadership, Mr. Clinton emphasized that the country risks falling behind its competitors if leadership doesn't change.
"What is wrong with America today is not that there are changes taking place -- it is that they have hurt us instead of helping us. It is that we have not had people tell us the truth and help us to embrace the changes in the world and make them our friend and not our enemy."
Mr. Clinton made his most caustic comments about Mr. Bush even before his day formally began. Speaking to reporters as he prepared to jog, he denounced Mr. Bush for saying "incredible, dishonest things" about him and vowed to "slam him home the next five days."
"The American people see him for what he is: a desperate person who just wants to hold power and doesn't give a rip about them," Mr. Clinton said. he said. "You've got a guy here who will literally say or do anything to get elected."
As the race enters its final frantic days, polls showed Mr. Clinton leading Mr. Bush by three to nine points. Mr. Clinton and the president are spending much of their time in the Midwest and industrial Northeast, in states like New Jersey that Mr. Bush needs to win to offset the expected loss of big electoral vote prizes such as California and New York.
But the candidates don't always address the same groups in these states. When Mr. Clinton came to Detroit yesterday, he addressed a racially mixed audience and pointedly noted that Mr. Bush was courting voters the same day in suburban Macomb County, a mainly white area which overwhelmingly favored the Republican in 1988.
Mr. Clinton, accompanied in the Cobo Hall sports arena in Detroit by civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, gave a speech designed to appeal to whites as well as blacks. Careful during his campaign not to be seen catering to minority groups, he stuck largely to bread-and-butter issues and emphasized racial unity.
He called on voters to "reject the politics of denial and division and blame" and declared that "the distance between here and Macomb County is much closer than the distance between here and the trickle-down administration in Washington."
Mr. Clinton, who is dueling with Mr. Bush over who is the better friend of the beleaguered auto industry, defended his advocacy of higher fuel standards. He said he would "never write into a law a standard that we can't meet" and said higher standards are needed to keep the U.S. auto industry competitive with foreign small-car manufacturers.
Trying to put the president on the defensive, he charged that 250,000 auto jobs have been lost during the Bush administration, which he also accused of undercutting domestic light truck sales by lowering tariffs on Japanese imports. "This is a guy who has the gall to come up to Michigan and say [that] I'm going to cost" jobs, Mr. Clinton said.
Mr. Clinton accused Mr. Bush of taking credit for legislation and programs -- such as the upgrade of the M-1 tank made in Michigan -- that he initially opposed.
He ticked off a list of problems caused by "trickle-down" economic tax policies that he said favored the rich, including a loss of 1.4 million manufacturing jobs and an increase in poverty. With each example, he intoned, "We can do better than that."
The crowds at Cobo Hall and other events needed no persuading. They cheered, applauded, and sometimes chanted the time left to the election, "four more days."
Today Mr. Clinton plans to campaign in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, then go to Georgia on Saturday -- a sign that he believes he can grab a share of the Southern vote that went solidly for Republicans four years ago.