Gore taps Reagan's theme in new pitch; Democrat's third try at boosting bid asks 'Are you better off?'


NEW YORK - Echoing the slogan of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" re-election drive, Al Gore kicked off a new attempt to take credit for the booming economy and recharge his presidential campaign yesterday.

Gore hopes that, like Reagan, he'll be rewarded by the voters during a time of prosperity at home and peace abroad. However, polls show that Americans remain wary of Gore's leadership ability and aren't giving him much credit for the growing economy.

In a major campaign address that aides called a preview of his fall election message, the Democratic vice president borrowed Republican rhetoric and conservative themes to argue that he is best suited to build on the successes of the Clinton administration and to keep the economy revving.

"I'm here today to tell you, 'You ain't seen nothing yet,'" Gore said, repeating an old show-business line that Reagan made the refrain of his successful 1984 re-election campaign.

Gore announced several proposals he'll detail in coming days, including new spending initiatives on the environment, child care and job training. He will also unveil a new retirement savings account, based on an existing Clinton proposal, to counter Texas Gov. George W. Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security.

His heavily promoted speech, coupled with the Democrat's decision to start airing the first general election TV ads last week, marks at least the third time that Gore has attempted to kick-start his campaign over the past year.

On Monday, he launched a three-week "progress and prosperity" tour of key states that is aimed at reminding voters of the administration's economic accomplishments.

Throughout his years in government, Gore has never been closely associated with economic issues. In an effort to promote the idea that he has been a key player in the administration's economic councils, however, former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin was at his side yesterday and is to campaign with him today in Scranton, Pa.

Rubin, a possible contender for the second spot on the Gore ticket, is widely regarded by Wall Street as the single Washington figure, after Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, most responsible for stoking the economic boom of the 1990s.

Rubin declined to say whether he was under active consideration as Gore's running mate.

But he did say that Gore had been "deeply involved" in every significant economic decision made during Rubin's 6 1/2 years as the administration's chief economic policy-maker.

Gore opened his speech by quoting what he called Reagan's "justly famous question ... 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?'"

The answer, Gore added, "is obvious."

There was a little bit of something for everyone in Gore's remarks. Aides said they expect many of the lines to remain part of his stump speech through the fall campaign.

With Washington debating how to spend a growing federal budget surplus, Gore described this year's election as "a turning point for America."

New economic projections later this month are expected to show that the surplus could exceed $4 trillion over the next 10 years, about $1 trillion more than previous estimates.

Those new surplus numbers, the latest dividend from the country's continued prosperity, could make it more difficult for Gore to argue that Bush's proposal for a $1.2 trillion tax cut would threaten the nation's economy.

Using conservative language to outline the "principles" that he said would guide his presidency, Gore emphasized the need for fiscal discipline and said it would be a "moral victory" if the federal government met the administration's goal of paying off the federal debt by 2012 - one year earlier than previously announced.

Gore strategist Carter Eskew said that yesterday marked the opening of a debate about "a new era in this country," in which the nominees of the two major parties would compete over how best to use the surplus and extend economic prosperity.

He added that Gore's speech yesterday, with its "rather conservative undercurrent," reflected "the hard-won lessons" of recent years.

"It is a big piece of our campaign and will remain so," Eskew said.

Gore repeated his intention to propose "an iron-clad lockbox" to wall off the Medicare trust fund.

He also said he would announce the creation of a series of new "trust funds" that would highlight his spending plans for education, the environment, energy security, child care and job training.

Gore will propose incentives to clean up old power plants, encourage carmakers to produce a new generation of cleaner vehicles and promote greater use of mass transit such as light-rail, magnetic levitation and high-speed rail.

He also will call for voluntary savings accounts, to be called "Social Security Plus," that would allow individuals to supplement their existing retirement program with new, tax-free accounts.

Similar to the Universal Savings Accounts that were proposed by Clinton, the plan would require no new taxes, said Gore aides, who added that the vice president would provide details in a speech next week.

But in an effort to ward off suggestions that he is a big-spending Democrat, Gore emphasized that his proposals will require "no new bureaucracies, no new agencies or organizations. Because not only is the era of big government over, the era of old government is over, too."

A Bush campaign spokesman said that despite Gore's "conservative-sounding rhetoric," it seemed as though "the only thing Al Gore trusts is the federal government."

Bush, added spokesman Dan Bartlett, believes Americans should have "more control over saving for their retirement, planning for their children's education and choosing quality and affordable health care."

As part of the attempt to promote Gore's repackaged agenda, his campaign manager, Donna Brazille, plans to describe the new spending programs in a private briefing for House Democrats on Capitol Hill today.

Gore is continuing a recent effort to campaign in a more positive vein, after a string of attacks on Bush appeared to gain Gore little more than criticism.

He never mentioned Bush, his Republican opponent, though the speech was carefully constructed to contrast the two men.

For example, Gore said he would propose "the right kind" of tax cuts, targeted at "those who need them the most," to help families preserve their "values" by saving for college and retirement and making health care more affordable.

"I won't spend money that we don't yet even have on a huge tax cut that our economy can't afford, in ways that could end our prosperity and progress," he added.

Recent polls rate the presidential race a tossup, though Bush enjoys a small lead in some national surveys.

The Texas governor is regarded as a stronger leader, polls show, even though Bush has been in government for only six years and Gore has spent more than two decades in office.

Unlike Bush, who answered questions from reporters after a recent major speech on national defense, Gore avoids news conferences that might force him to think on his feet in a largely uncontrolled situation.

After his speech, Gore conducted a series of interviews yesterday with network TV anchors in New York but did not face the dozens of journalists on hand for the speech.

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