Bush vows to focus on 'real people'


DAYTON, Ohio - Gov. George W. Bush dismissed yesterday criticism from some Republicans over the direction of his campaign. But he also called himself the underdog in the race and said he would restyle his campaign to include more intimate gatherings with voters.

Bush and his aides said he would start appearing at town hall meetings again as early as next week. Such sessions disappeared in March after Arizona Sen. John McCain dropped from the Republican race.

Karen P. Hughes, Bush's communications director, said the Texas governor was also likely to start visiting coffee shops and cafeterias and might begin to visit families to discuss how his tax-cut plan would affect them.

Asked why he wanted to hold such events, Bush said, "Well, it's a better picture." He said that if his unscripted encounters were mostly with reporters on his campaign plane, "people don't get a sense of my ability to relate to people. They don't get a sense that my plan has got real purposes for real people."

Hughes repeatedly used a similar phrase, "real plans for real people," making it clear that this was the Bush campaign's new slogan.

Bush made his comments at an impromptu news conference on an airport tarmac in Detroit after prominent Republicans across the country expressed concern over the state of his campaign and after a series of national and state polls showed that Vice President Al Gore was solidifying the gains he had made after the Democratic National Convention.

A poll released yesterday by ABC News and the Washington Post found the race tied, with Bush and Gore each attracting 47 percent, while a Gallup Organization poll for CNN and USA Today found Gore with a 7-point lead. Gore leads 46 percent to 40 percent in a Reuters/Zogby poll.

And while he said he would change some events, Bush also waved off some of the second-guessing.

"That's Washington," he said. "That's people getting ready to jump out of the foxhole before the first shell is fired."

Many of the Republicans who had voiced concerns about the shape of the Bush campaign seemed particularly concerned about Bush's refusal to agree to debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. They said his stance had made him seem timid and had taken him into an unproductive fight over political process rather than issues.

While he continued to criticize Gore for rejecting his offer for a different set of debates - two of them shorter and before smaller audiences than the commission debates - Bush for the first time gave some suggestion that there was give to his position. "There will be debates," he said. "I am confident there will be debates. As to what they look like and where they are, it will be worked out in due course."

Bush even joked that he "may go more alpha male coming down the stretch." That was a dig at Gore, who had a feminist author on his payroll last year, advising him how to dress and act like an alpha male. "I'm under no illusions and neither should our supporters be - it's going to be a tough contest," Bush said.

Asked if he was the underdog, Bush jumped at the label. "Yeah," he said. "I'm the underdog. But I was the underdog when I first started."

Bush's new campaign style is reminiscent of the retooling of his primary campaign in South Carolina in February after his drubbing by McCain in the New Hampshire primary. Bush began holding town meetings, which had been his opponent's trademark. And he tried to appropriate McCain's reform mantle, calling himself a "reformer with results."

The events Bush and his aides were describing yesterday similarly echoed of the style of Gore, who has been holding town hall meetings, visiting teachers in their homes and stopping into coffee shops to talk to workers. Gore often talks of fighting for "working people." Bush is now speaking of working for "real people."

Hughes said the governor and his aides had thought they were not being "creative" enough. She said the campaign had fallen into auto-pilot, simply using the rally formats that had worked for Bush on his ride into the Republican National Convention. She said Bush wanted to put a human face on his policy proposals by meeting with people and showing how they would benefit under his plans.

The Gore campaign derided Bush's portrayal of himself as an underdog.

"This is a guy who raised $100 million in this campaign, a record, from the special interests - the HMOs, the prescription drug companies and the big oil industry," said Chris Lehane, Gore's spokesman. "It's Al Gore who has an agenda that represents the underdog and George W. Bush who has an agenda that represents the special interests.

But Bush's new style was not visible yesterday, as he turned to military themes and showcased at his side Gen. Colin L. Powell and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. At Wright State University in Dayton, under a banner proclaiming "Respecting America's Military," Bush introduced the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Desert Storm commander. Both gave him a strong endorsement as the best man to be commander in chief.

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