WASHINGTON - Accusing Al Gore of trying to scare senior voters, George W. Bush defended his proposal to reform Social Security yesterday at stops across the pivotal campaign battlefield of Florida.
Gore, aiming to energize Democrats in urban centers of the East and Midwest, stressed the economic stakes in the election and predicted that the next president would mold the Supreme Court for decades to come.
Tomorrow's presidential vote is shaping up as the closest in a generation, with the candidates running neck-and-neck in a handful of key states and the outcome too close to call.
Bush is clinging to an advantage in most national polls, which show the Texas governor leading Gore by about 3 percentage points. But the vice president remains within striking distance in enough states to secure the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
New state surveys released over the weekend showed Bush with a slight edge in Missouri and Gore with a small advantage in Minnesota and Iowa. The contest appears particularly tight in Florida, Wisconsin and Gore's home state of Tennessee, where Bush is to make a final campaign stop tonight.
Florida and its 25 electoral votes have emerged as the biggest tossup prize, with the candidates spending more time there than any other state in the closing hours of the campaign. The Sunshine State has gone solidly Republican in every presidential election over the past 20 years except for President Clinton's re-election victory.
Bush devoted his entire day to Florida yesterday, a sign both of the importance that he attaches to the state and Gore's progress in winning over seniors there. The vice president will spend much of election eve in Florida, ending with a predawn stop tomorrow in Tampa. Because the polls in Florida will be among the first to close tomorrow night, the early results could influence voting in the West.
At a south Florida rally, Bush said the state's Republican governor, his brother John E. "Jeb" Bush, had assured him that "Florida is going to be Bush-Cheney country. I believe him."
Seniors make up more than one-third of Florida's electorate, and Gore has poured millions into television ads attacking Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security.
A new Gore commercial, now airing in Florida and in Pennsylvania, which has the second-largest senior voting bloc, plays off a Bush gaffe last week, when the Republican seemed to suggest that he did not know that Social Security was a federal program. The ad repeats Gore's frequent criticisms of Bush's Social Security proposal and questions the Texan's readiness to be president.
Bush calls those ads, and automated phone calls that Democrats are placing to older voters, a deliberate distortion designed to frighten seniors into voting for Gore. The Republican's proposal to allow younger workers to put a portion of their Social Security tax into the stock market would not apply to current Social Security recipients or to those who are about to retire.
"We're going to reject the politics of scaring folks," Bush declared. "The seniors of Florida must hear this loud and clear: The promise this nation made to its seniors will be kept. The Social Security trust will be solid and sound."
Jeb Bush, who made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows, predicted that the most extensive GOP turnout operation ever would make the difference in Florida. He also said that the crowds greeting his brother George at campaign stops were an indication of the high level of Republican "intensity, and in a close election, that matters."
A new national poll showed that the intensity of Bush's support is higher than that of any presidential candidate on the eve of the election since that for Ronald Reagan in 1984.
But the survey, by the independent Pew Research Center, also found "significant potential for last-minute changes in opin- ion." Up to one in 12 voters remains undecided or could change their minds, according to the poll, which was completed Saturday.
The survey also found no evidence that the news of Bush's 1976 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol was having a significant effect on voter attitudes.
With new polls suggesting that Gore is running no worse than even with Bush in the electoral powerhouses of Pennsylvania and Michigan, the Democrat spent much of the day concentrating on turning out his party's base there.
"This is one of those elections that you're going to tell your grandkids about," the vice president assured an outdoor rally in a Philadelphia city park. "You'll look back and tell them, 'Back at the beginning of the 21st century, we had an election that was so close, so hard fought, that I personally made the difference in getting the votes to the polls and we won!'"
Gore, hoping that voters will give him credit for "the strongest economy in all of American history," said that, because of the federal budget surplus, "the question that is on the ballot is prosperity itself."
His voice raw, the Democrat repeated his call for a targeted tax cut and said that Bush's across-the-board rate reduction would "squander this surplus on a giant tax cut ... with almost half of it going to the wealthiest 1 percent."
With African-American turnout one of the keys to the election, Gore hailed the record-high minority employment during the Clinton years, making a rare mention of the president by name. He also embraced the sister of James Byrd Jr., a black Texan whose dragging death has become a rallying point for critics of Bush's failure to embrace hate-crimes legislation in Texas.
Clinton himself was far from the 11th-hour campaign whirl in critical states.
The president, regarded as something of a pariah by the Gore campaign because of his unpopularity with some swing voters, was relegated to turnout duty in his home state of Arkansas.
Clinton returned to the White House last night and said he would be making phone calls to radio stations, mainly those aimed at African-Americans and other groups the Democrats are targeting in their turnout push.
The frantic itineraries of the nominees and their running mates illustrate the complexities of an electoral map that still contains more than a dozen tossup states. In a year in which many places have seen no presidential campaign activity, 14 battleground states will have been visited in the final three days of the campaign by one or more of the candidates, most of those states more than once.
Bush, who stands a good chance of carrying Arkansas, is to make a final stop in the state tonight before returning to Austin. The governor will also campaign in Gore's home state of Tennessee, Wisconsin and Missouri, while vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney will visit Nevada, Oregon and Washington, winding up in his new hometown of Jackson, Wyo.
Gore will touch down today in Missouri, after stops in Iowa and Michigan (for the second day in a row). His running mate, Conn. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, will campaign in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine and New Hampshire.
Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who could cut into Gore's vote in as many as five states, plans rallies today in Harlem, with the Rev. Al Sharpton, and in Boston. Nader's potential of "getting 4 or 5 or 6 percent . . . may make the difference in some states," Gore campaign chairman William M. Daley said.
"This is an election that is going to the finish line on Tuesday, and this is probably the only election in modern presidential times when we really don't know the outcome," Daley said on CBS. "Right now, people know it's close. And that's going to help with the turnout, which I think is extremely important for both candidates."