Stepping up the attack on his rival's record, Vice President Al Gore accused Gov. George W. Bush yesterday of neglecting the nutritional needs of poor children in the Lone Star State.
Gore, in a speech to a Democratic audience in Baltimore, charged that Bush's record in Texas was sharply at odds with his outreach to minority voters and his attempts to portray himself as a different kind of Republican.
While Bush is "trying to put the compassion into his conservatism" by posing for numerous photographs with African-Americans and Hispanics, said Gore, Texas has short-changed summer nutrition programs for thousands of poor children.
"Hungry children need food, not photo ops," Gore told the Democratic Leadership Council.
His remarks were the latest line of attack in a developing campaign effort by Gore to undermine popular support for Bush, who continues to lead in the polls.
In recent weeks, Gore has focused on what he calls "the mess in Texas" in hopes of convincing voters that Bush's performance as governor doesn't match his moderate rhetoric as a presidential candidate.
The Bush campaign responded that Gore had again twisted the facts. "That's why his credibility continues to shrink," said Dan Bartlett, a Bush campaign spokesman.
Bartlett acknowledged that Texas, like many other states, has struggled to find ways to feed more poor children during the summer, when schools are closed. But he said that, under Bush, the number of Texas children in summer nutrition programs had increased sharply between 1996 and 2000.
He said Gore "distorts and misleads" when he charges, as he did in his speech yesterday, that Texas faces "a serious budget shortfall." Gore said the state budget surplus in Texas "is as good as gone" because of "huge deficits" in health care and criminal justice spending.
Bartlett noted that the $610 million shortfall is less than 1 percent of the state's $98 billion budget. He added that the additional spending would be covered by an estimated $1 billion state budget surplus, leaving at least $400 million in surplus funds.
Gore seized on a report issued last week by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based anti-hunger advocacy group, which gave low marks to Texas' summer nutrition program.
The report said Texas could have qualified for millions in additional federal funding if the state had found more locations at which to provide free lunches to children last summer.
Nine percent of Texas children served by school-year free-lunch programs received summer nutrition in July 1999, according to the report. The national average was 21.5 percent; for Maryland, the figure was 19.9 percent.
"Just because school is out doesn't mean that hunger takes a summer vacation -- or that leadership can go on leave," Gore told several hundred state and local elected officials, lobbyists and party activists on the last day of the centrist DLC's two-day meeting here.
Gore used the Texas budget shortfall to accuse Bush of providing weak leadership as governor.
"When he was asked why Texas was suddenly facing such a budget shortfall, Governor Bush told the Dallas Morning News, 'I hope I'm not here to have to deal with it,'" Gore said, prompting groans from some in the audience.
"That was my reaction when I heard it," Gore quipped. "You can't duck responsibility and expect a new opportunity."
Gore's campaign is hoping to raise doubts about Bush's qualifications to be president by attacking what it sees as weaknesses in his six years as governor, the only public office Bush has held.
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said the latest Texas budget figures prove that Bush deserves "the gold, silver and bronze medal for fiscal mismanagement."
But Bush spokesman Bartlett said Gore was being hypocritical to attack Bush over a routine midcourse budget correction of the sort that the Clinton administration has often made when unexpected spending needs require additional action by Congress.
He also said that until Gore began attacking Bush's budget leadership, the vice president had tried to mislead voters by claiming that Bush had no responsibility for the state budget at all.
Gore was a founding member of the DLC, which helped create the New Democrat movement and became a vehicle for the election of Bill Clinton and Gore in 1992. However, Gore's involvement with the group has been episodic.
Gore's appearance yesterday -- he skipped last year's meeting -- came as he continues efforts to strengthen his support from his party in the face of polls that show that Democrats are less enthusiastic than Republicans about their prospective nominee.
DLC members, including state and municipal officials who had spent two days talking about the nuts and bolts of local government, reacted with moderate enthusiasm to Gore's recital of the administration's record over the past eight years and his initiatives for education, energy security and the environment.
But when he began to pick apart Bush's record and toss out more partisan rhetoric, his listeners perked up.
"He was more energized and on-message than in the last few times I've seen him," said Donald T. Cunningham, mayor of Bethlehem, Pa. "Those statistics from Texas were really alarming. That's the kind of stuff they are going to be putting out for the next four months."
Maryland Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg was also impressed with Gore's specifics. "What he did today was show that Bush, with compassionate conservatism, is trying to do with rhetoric what the DLC has already achieved in reality," the Baltimore Democrat said.
Patrick H. Hays, mayor of North Little Rock, Ark., said he thought Gore could still be capable of generating the Democratic voter intensity that will be a key to winning in November. "He seems to have turned up both the decibel and the energy level," Hays said.
Before returning to Washington, Gore met privately with two handgun safety activists, Carole Price, the Maryland coordinator of May's Million Mom March in Washington, and Vinnie DeMarco of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse.
Price, whose 13-year-old son was shot and killed accidentally by a 9-year-old neighbor, said she would do anything she could to help elect Gore. She said Bush, who telephoned her recently, would not go as far as Gore to child-proof every handgun sold in the United States.