CLEVELAND - In what is being billed as a major economic address, Al Gore will lay out 10 specific goals for the U.S. economy today, along with a blizzard of economic statistics to prove that he can eliminate the federal debt by 2012 even as he launches major new programs in education, health care and the environment.
The vice president will propose setting aside a surplus "rainy day" fund that could reach as high as $300 billion over the next decade, senior Gore advisers said.
The reserve, they said, would act as a buffer in case an economic downturn began to quickly eat into surplus projections.
Gore will also propose specific goals for a country already enjoying a remarkable run of prosperity, such as improving the nation's woeful level of savings, increasing homeownership and cutting the stubborn poverty rate.
Most important, the address will detail how Gore plans to allocate the nation's burgeoning budget surplus.
Gore pledged to high-technology workers in Columbus yesterday that he would "not overshoot the mark with a tax cut for the wealthy that completely overwhelms the surplus."
The future of the nation's burgeoning budget surplus re-emerged yesterday as a major issue of the presidential campaign, after Texas Gov. George W. Bush laid out plans to spend nearly $200 billion on Medicare over the next decade.
Anticipating criticism from the Gore campaign, Bush also issued a detailed budget blueprint purporting to show that he could offer $1.3 trillion in tax cuts and nearly $475 billion in new spending, while leaving the Social Security surplus untouched and continuing to shrink the federal debt.
"We are in a prosperous time," Bush told a crowd at a Scranton, Pa., hospital. "But we must put our prosperity to good use."
The Gore campaign countered with its own budget tables showing that Bush would have to take $1.1 billion out of the Social Security trust fund to make ends meet.
Ron Klain, a senior Gore campaign adviser, said Bush's proposals would leave the nation still $2.8 trillion in debt in 2012, the year that Gore hopes to eliminate the federal debt held by the public.
Staying with the theme of fiscal discipline, today Gore will unveil a year-by-year analysis that he said will show precisely how much his proposals will cost, how much his tax cuts will take from the federal treasury, and how much the federal budget will decline over the next 10 years.
The speech, Gore said, will be "comprehensive, detailed and chock full of specifics."
In truth, both sides have used creative accounting to inflate their own self-proclaimed fiscal responsibility and to condemn the supposed profligacy of their opponents.
To keep his budget balanced, Bush said yesterday, he would find $196.4 billion in "savings from government reform" over the next decade, though he provided no details.
Tending to undercut his claims that the nation's military is in sharp decline, the Texas governor also allocated just $45 billion to defense spending above the levels set by President Clinton for the next 10 years, less than a $5 billion increase a year.
The Gore campaign has tried to unilaterally change the terms of the debate to cut back the size of the projected surplus available to Bush.
The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the federal government will run a surplus of nearly $4.6 trillion between 2001 and 2010. Of that, nearly $2.4 trillion would come from Social Security taxes, and both parties have declared that pot of cash off-limits.
That leaves Bush and Gore nearly $2.2 trillion to use for tax cuts and spending. But the Gore campaign has reduced that sum to $1.75 trillion, by maintaining that Medicare taxes shouldn't be counted and by insisting that Bush use surplus totals over nine years instead of 10.
That is because Bush counts the cost of his tax cut over only nine years to reach $1.3 trillion price tag he has put on it. "We're not going to give him one extra year of surpluses to make his numbers work," said Sarah Bianchi, a Gore budget adviser, who said the total over 10 years would be $1.6 trillion.
Gore also holds Bush accountable for some $350 billion in tax cuts embraced by congressional Republicans that did not make it into the governor's tax package, though Bush has said he supports those cuts.
And Gore insists that Bush should account for at least $200 billion in costs that would be incurred by his plan to divert about 16 percent of the Social Security payroll tax to private investment accounts.
On the other hand, some conservative groups, such as the National Taxpayers Union, say Gore has badly underestimated the cost of his own tax cuts and spending proposals. The taxpayers group estimated that Gore's expansive agenda would cost more than $2.3 trillion, enough to more than consume the projected non-Social Security surplus.
Gore says his plans would fit comfortably into the $2.2 trillion projected surplus, with enough room to set money aside for his reserve fund.
The Bush campaign employed surrogates yesterday to drum home its contention that Gore has already broken the bank.
"Al Gore is writing bad checks on the taxpayer dime," said a statement by Illinois Republican Rep. John M. Shimkus. "He's already run out of money to pay for his proposals - meaning he'll have to raid Social Security or raise taxes on working Americans to deliver on his promises."
And today, Bush will begin running newspaper ads in Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California and Florida, featuring the signatures of 294 economists who back Bush's tax plan.
The debate over numbers might seem arcane, but it has grown more important as the tax cut and spending proposals keep coming. Analysts and pollsters from both political parties say voters might begin discounting all political promises if they believe the candidates are inflating the amount of money available.
"The public does understand one thing, and that is that you cannot waste the money that is in the federal surplus," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart.
"The public loves the idea of having the wind at our backs, but they do believe we have to be as careful as we were when we were in deficit."
Bush might have the toughest time with that concern simply because he has the biggest proposal out there, a tax cut with a gaudy price tag. The governor has acknowledged that he must do a better job explaining what is in the tax cut plan and how the nation can afford it.
Yesterday, he reiterated that concern, conceding "there's a lot of noise in the political process ... about budgets."
Even putting out detailed budget numbers might be a sign of weakness for Bush, said Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz.
"Anytime you're defending and explaining, you're losing," Luntz said. "Arguing over numbers will not work" for Bush.