WARREN, Mich. -- President Bush, responding to Bill Clinton's efforts to turn the issues of character and trust back on to him, yesterday challenged the Arkansas governor to make them the center of the campaign in the final days before Tuesday's election.
Mr. Clinton has been arguing that the president's reversal on tax increases and other matters compromises his credibility.
"I heard Governor Clinton raise the character issue yesterday. Well, come on in. Let's take it on character and trust," the president told a cheering crowd at Macomb County Community College.
Mr. Bush continued to accuse Mr. Clinton of "waffling" and being "on every side of every issue," using the governor's somewhat blurred support of the Persian Gulf war as a prime example.
The president quoted Mr. Clinton's statement at the time that, "I
agreed with the minority [favoring economic sanctions over force] . . . but I guess I would have voted with the majority."
Mr. Bush commented: "You cannot have a lot of buts in the Oval Office."
Mr. Bush reiterated his criticism of Mr. Clinton's Vietnam War protests as a 23-year-old student in England and also raised again the issue of Mr. Clinton's draft record. The invitation to make character and trust the central issues in the waning days of the campaign was no surprise except in the direct way it was expressed.
For weeks, Mr. Clinton had largely ignored the president's thrusts on his character and trustworthiness, choosing instead to focus on his own agenda for change and criticism of what he calls the "failed theory" of "trickle-down economics" of the Reagan-Bush era. But as polls suggested that the race might be getting closer, Mr. Clinton decided to start hitting back.
Two days ago, the governor seized on an article in The New Yorker magazine which quoted former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev as saying Mr. Bush once told him "not to pay any attention to what he would say in the presidential campaign" about taking credit for the end of the Cold War.
"He's telling foreign leaders the truth, but he won't tell you the truth," Mr. Clinton said.
The president also aimed sharp criticism -- and ridicule -- at Mr. Clinton's running mate, Sen. Al Gore, again calling him "the Ozone Man," in reference to Mr. Gore's warnings about environmental hazards and neglect.
"You know why I call him Ozone Man?" the president asked the crowd. "This guy is so far off in the environmental extreme, we'll be up to our neck in owls and out of work for every American. This guy's crazy. He is way out, far out. Far out, man!"
Mr. Bush scored the Democratic vice-presidential nominee for support of a goal of 45 mpg fuel efficiency in U.S.-made automobiles, charging that such a requirement would cost thousands of jobs in Michigan, the auto capital of the nation.
The issue, called CAFE (for Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency), has been the subject of radio ads by both the Bush and Clinton campaigns in the fight for the state's 18 electoral votes.
Since the start of the fall campaign, Mr. Bush has been trailing Mr. Clinton in Michigan polls.
The most recent Detroit Free Press survey a week ago had the Democrat ahead by 10 percentage points.
But Republican Gov. John Engler, chairman of the Bush campaign in the state, told the Macomb County audience, "We're closing the gap and we're going to finish the job."
Macomb County, just north of Detroit, is a largely blue-collar, white suburban area of usually conservative Democrats that Ronald Reagan captured in 1980 and held in 1984, and that Mr. Bush retained comfortably in 1988.
It has often been called "the home of the Reagan Democrats," an identifiable voting bloc of middle-class whites disaffected on tax and social issues from liberal Democratic politics.
In his speech here, the president reminded the crowd of the 15 percent inflation rate and 21 percent interest rates under President Jimmy Carter.
Later, at another rally in Grand Rapids, the hometown of President Gerald R. Ford, Mr. Ford sounded the same theme about the administration of Mr. Carter, the man who beat him for the presidency in 1976.
The country will have the same high rates, he warned, if voters "make that same mistake again" by electing Mr. Clinton.