AMES, Iowa - Four days before the nation elects a new president, Vice President Al Gore took his most direct shots yet at George W. Bush's fitness for the White House yesterday, seizing on a Bush misstatement that had seemed to suggest that Social Security was not a federal program.
Through interviews, an amped-up stump speech and a new TV advertisement, Gore tried to create another problem for Bush beyond the disclosure of a 24-year-old drunken driving arrest that is dogging the Texas governor.
Bush, while campaigning in St. Charles, Mo., on Thursday, criticized what he called Gore's "scare tactics" on Social Security. Noting his own plan to let younger workers invest some of their Social Security taxes in private investment accounts, Bush told the crowd, "This frightens some in Washington, because they want the federal government controlling Social Security like it's some kind of federal program."
To that, Gore deadpanned yesterday, "Yeaaahhh," drawling out the word and pausing as the crowd at Iowa State University roared under a bright autumn sun. "Do you want to entrust the Oval Office to someone that doesn't even know that Social Security is a federal program?"
The campaign hammered away at the point. In an interview with a Des Moines TV station, Gore caustically referred to the gaffe, saying, "Four days before the election he doesn't even know that? I think that's outrageous."
The vice president's team quickly produced an ad that will appear in the crucial battleground states of Florida and Pennsylvania beginning today.
The ad intones: "Is Social Security a federal program? Of course, it is, but it seems George Bush doesn't understand that."
It concludes: "George Bush: Is he ready to lead America?"
The Bush misstatement appeared to be another in a long series of verbal stumbles that have been taken more as a joke during the presidential campaign than a serious question of character or fitness. Bush's communications director, Karen P. Hughes, said the governor's comment had been a simple slip of the tongue.
In the full context of his remarks, Bush seemed to be trying to say that Gore was treating Social Security like a federal fiefdom by opposing Bush's proposal to partly privatize Social Security.
But the Bush blooper dovetailed with the closing themes of Gore's campaign - that Bush lacks the experience and capability for the presidency, and that his policy proposals, especially on Social Security, would threaten seniors and those nearing retirement.
"Now he's been put on the defensive about this" proposal, Gore told an enthusiastic crowd at a Kansas City community college yesterday, "because the people who understand how Social Security operates, and the families that know why it's so important to ensure the dignity of life for those who are in their later years, have tried to add the [Bush] numbers up, and the numbers do not add up."
Bush has countered that his plan would offer new opportunities to build personal wealth, while extending the solvency of a Social Security system threatened by the impending retirement of the huge baby boom generation. Under the plan, younger workers could divert 2 percent of their income - or about 15 percent of their Social Security taxes - into personal retirement accounts.
But in recent weeks, Gore has relentlessly pushed his contention that such a diversion - valued at $1 trillion over a decade - would come at the expense of retirees' Social Security benefits unless guaranteed benefits for younger workers were cut sharply instead. Bush has promised that his plan would not cut benefits to current retirees or those nearing retirement. But he has not ruled out future cuts in benefits, saying such details would be worked out later.
By assailing the Bush plan as an ill-conceived idea proposed by an inexperienced candidate, Gore hopes to achieve two tasks in one: fire up voters in swing states with large elderly populations, such as Florida and Pennsylvania, and persuade undecided voters that Bush is not ready to be president.
In Iowa, Gore called the proposal a "cockamamie plan," though partial-privatization proposals have been embraced by such respected Democrats as retiring Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.
Gore revisited the themes yesterday as he jumped from Missouri to Iowa to his home state of Tennessee, all of them up for grabs Tuesday.
While Gore dwelled on Social Security, some of his surrogates seemed determined to keep alive the notion of Bush's fitness for office, using the governor's 1976 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol as an example.
Gore and his campaign officials declined to comment on the issue, other than a sharply worded denial by William M. Daley, the campaign chairman, that the Gore team had any role in the disclosure of Bush's drunken-driving incident.
In Iowa, Sen. Tom Harkin, a Gore ally, asserted that news of the arrest was pertinent to the issue of Bush's readiness for the White House. "The relevance here is one of character, one of trust, one of honesty and openness," Harkin said. "The issue here is that he covered it up."
In this topsy-turvy campaign, Missouri, Iowa and Tennessee have each seen remarkable twists. The death of Gov. Mel Carnahan of Missouri in a plane crash last month was thought to seal a Gore defeat there. The popular Democrat had been locked in a tight race to unseat Republican Sen. John Ashcroft. Without that race, political prognosticators expected that Democratic turnout would dwindle, crushing Gore's prospects.
But Carnahan's name remains on the ballot, and a surge of sympathy has put the late governor on top in the polls. Now that his wife, Jean Carnahan, has agreed to serve if the governor's name garners more votes than Ashcroft, Missouri Democrats seem energized. The most recent state polls have Bush and Gore deadlocked in Missouri.
Iowa has been reliably Democratic in recent presidential elections. But neither Bush nor Gore has been able to open up a meaningful lead, in part because Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, seems to be siphoning off some of the vice president's support.
Tennessee, Gore's home state, has remained up for grabs, though the vice president has been able to whittle Bush's once sizable lead to an insignificant margin. Gore swept into East Tennessee yesterday for an airport rally near Knoxville before rallying Democratic voters in Memphis last night.