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Bush is struggling to regain initiative


NAPERVILLE, Ill. -With a new jab at his rival's honesty, Texas Gov. George W. Bush launched his stretch drive for the presidency yesterday by pledging to bring "plain-spoken" leadership to Washington.

The Republican candidate acknowledged that he faces "a tough battle" against Al Gore as he leveled a new assault on what he called the vice president's "Washington double-speak."

"It's time to get rid of all those words like 'no controlling legal authority,'" said Bush, referring to the vice president's response when the legality of his 1996 campaign fund-raising activities was challenged.

"It's time to elect some folks who've got good common sense. It's time to elect people who say what they mean and mean what they say when they tell the American people something," Bush declared at a Labor Day rally in this heavily Republican suburb of Chicago.

Over the past three weeks, Bush has struggled to regain the initiative in the presidential contest while Gore has continued to enjoy a post-convention surge. Last week, in an effort to change the dynamics of the race, the Republicans began airing an aggressive new ad that questions Gore's character.

Today, Bush will outline his plans for providing prescription drug coverage under Medicare, the government health insurance program for seniors.

The fall campaign kickoff was supposed to be as much about image as substance. Bush spoke for just 10 minutes, as his campaign made sure that there would be plenty of pictures of him parading before friendly throngs in the Midwest battlegrounds of Illinois and Michigan.

But the cloudy, chilly day began with a gaffe, when an open microphone caught Bush making a derogatory comment to his running mate about a political reporter.

As the two candidates stood onstage, gazing out over the crowd and waving, Bush remarked, "There's Adam Clymer, major-league asshole from the New York Times."

"Oh, yeah, he is, big-time," Cheney agreed.

Bush communications director Karen Hughes said the remark, which could be clearly heard over the loudspeakers at the event, was meant to be a private comment that reflected Bush's displeasure with Clymer's work.

A spokesman for Gore, whose relations with the media have been rockier than Bush's, jumped on the slip as a sign that Bush is rattled. "As his poll numbers fall and the pressure builds, he's beginning to act in a curious way," said Chris Lehane, Gore's campaign press secretary.

Asked last night upon arrival in Allentown, Pa., if he had apologized to the reporter, Bush replied, "I regret people heard the comment."

The reporter had written critically of the public health system in Texas and also authored a recent "ad watch" column that was critical of a Republican ad about Bush's Medicare plan.

In his stump speech here, Bush sought to link the issue of Gore's credibility to the ongoing debate over presidential debates.

Referring to the vice president's vow to debate "anywhere, anytime," the governor repeated his offer to meet Gore on two television shows, starting as early as next week. One would be moderated by Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press," the other by CNN talk-show host Larry King.

The Gore campaign won't agree to those appearances unless Bush accepts three debates scheduled in October by a bipartisan commission to be carried by the major networks.

Gore aides claim that Bush, who isn't considered a strong debater, is trying to limit the size of the audience that would see him debate. The Bush camp, noting that he has agreed to one of the commission debates, says he merely wants to offer voters a variety of formats.

"All of a sudden the words about 'anytime, anywhere' don't seem to mean anything," taunted Bush, as supporters chanted "No More Gore."

Gore outlined the main points on his agenda, holding two dollar bills to illustrate his plan to use half the estimated $4 trillion federal budget surplus over the next decade to shore up Social Security and Medicare and provide a prescription-drug plan for seniors.

He handed one dollar to a supporter in the front row, as a symbol of his $1.6 trillion tax cut, adding, "I want the working families to put that money in your pocket."

Bush made only a glancing reference to the nation's economic prosperity. He said the budget surplus was due to the "ingenuity and hard work of the American working people" and to a federal government that "overcharges the people who work every single day."

He also touched on traditional conservative themes, including the need to strengthen the U.S. armed forces. And he promoted as "new thinking in Washington" his plan to allow younger workers to divert some of their payroll tax money into private investment accounts.

Bush said Gore and the Democrats would give more power to Washington and "the planners and the deciders and the folks that'll tell you how to think."

By contrast, Bush said he "trusts the families of America to make the right decisions, not our government."

Both campaigns will be closely watching the post-Labor Day polls this week for clues to the electorate's mood. The most recent surveys suggest Gore has a slight lead, though the competition for electoral votes is about even.

This week, Bush and Gore are devoting their campaign efforts to a handful of battleground states, especially Michigan and Pennsylvania that, politicians say, could decide the election.

Illinois, a Midwest swing state, is thought to be leaning toward Gore, and there are signs that the Republicans may be scaling back their efforts here. The Republican ad attacking Gore's credibility, which began airing over the weekend in 16 states, is not being broadcast in Illinois.

However, the Bush camp chose this prosperous, reliably Republican bastion in suburban DuPage County (average housing value: $279,661) for a picture-perfect opener to the final nine weeks of the campaign.

In a light mist, the Texas governor and his running mate joined the Labor Day parade through Naperville's leafy downtown streets.

Cheney, in a short-sleeved knit shirt, and Bush, a blue western-style shirt, strolled the mile-long route behind a camera truck, waving but seldom shaking hands with the cheering spectators.

Jeanne Gufler, a Naperville housewife, said she strongly supports Bush because "we need somebody in there as president who will give more dignity to the office."

Though Bush drew a relative handful of protesters, including a cluster toting anti-death penalty slogans, even some Democrats in the crowd were kindly disposed toward the Republican nominee on this holiday.

"This is a feel-good event for him," said Howie Mogil, an industrial chemist, who is leaning toward Gore. "Bush is a human being. He needs to feel good, too."

Later, Bush spoke in Romeo, Mich., outside Detroit, before flying to eastern Pennsylvania for a day-long schedule of events there today.

Cheney, meantime, headed for a Polish festival in Chicago where the wives of the Democratic ticket-mates, Tipper Gore and Haddassah Lieberman, also were scheduled to campaign.

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