WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore sketched the broad outlines of his presidential candidacy yesterday and challenged the sincerity of potential Republican rival Gov. George W. Bush's claim to be a compassionate conservative.
Gore argued that "America needs something better than compassionate conservatism" and accused Republicans like Bush of trying to mimic efforts by "new Democrats" such as President Clinton and himself to move their party toward the center.
Gore offered as an alternative "a new practical idealism for the 21st century" that would curb suburban sprawl, protect personal privacy, put more and better-trained teachers into classrooms, promote international trade and strengthen families.
"There is a difference," Gore said in a speech to the Democratic Leadership Council, "between using the rhetoric of the center and actually governing from the center between talking about compassion and actually putting your highest ideals into practice.
"Compassion," he went on, means "not going back to the risky tax schemes and economic upheaval of the" Reagan and Bush presidencies.
Also, Gore said, it means opposing school vouchers and favoring gun control and abortion rights, social issues on which Gore may try to portray Bush as outside the mainstream.
In attacking Bush, the Republican front-runner, Gore never mentioned the Texan by name. But there was no mistaking whom he was talking about when he referred to "some Republicans" who promote "compassionate conservatism" -- the widely publicized theme Bush used in a successful re-election campaign last month that drew support across party lines.
Gore's speech was a "marker," an aide said afterward, designed to signal the vice president's aggressive determination to hold the political center in the coming campaign.
But a Bush aide implied that the remarks smacked of desperation. Early opinion polls testing various matches for the 2000 contest show Gore trailing the Texas governor, who is expected to announce his decision to run by the middle of next year.
"It does strike me as a little odd," said Karen Hughes, a spokeswoman for Bush. "The vice president must be nervous about an election that is two years away to take on a governor who has not yet decided to run for that office."
She added that the governor's efforts to teach public school students to read by the end of third grade and help welfare recipients find work showed that Bush had translated both his conservative ideals and compassion into practice.
Gore, who is already assembling his campaign team for 2000, shared the podium with three potential rivals for his party's nomination at yesterday's event. Unlike the vice president, they offered specific plans to reform Social Security and Medicare and cut taxes.
Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a 1992 also-ran who will announce soon whether he is running again, proposed overhauling Social Security by cutting payroll taxes by $800 billion, returning to a pay-as-you-go system and adding new private investment accounts.
He also favors scrapping Medicare and other government health-care programs in favor of a new, single plan for all Americans, and he would replace the federal income tax with a consumption tax.
"I'm a Democrat because I believe in the dignity, not the density, of every American," said Kerrey, responding to critics who say many people lack the sophistication to manage the private retirement accounts he has proposed.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1988 who will decide by mid-January whether to seek the nomination, called for a new, simpler income tax system.
It would have five rates from 10 percent to 34 percent -- because "I still believe in progressive taxation," he said -- but only two deductions, for home mortgages and health premiums paid by businesses for their employees.
Gephardt said his idea would reduce taxes for middle-income Americans and mean that a majority of taxpayers would not have to file any tax form at all. He would also make it impossible for Congress to raise taxes in the future unless voters approve in a national referendum.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, another presidential possibility, wants to reshape the nation's public education system by giving more authority to individual schools, "ending tenure as we know it" for teachers and streamlining teacher certification.
Clinton, who chaired the Democratic Leadership Council and used the organization as a springboard to the presidency, addressed the group's annual dinner last night.
Pub Date: 12/03/98