ROMEO, Mich. -- Their battle for the White House a dead heat, George W. Bush and Al Gore marked the traditional Labor Day launch of the general election campaign Monday with clashes that in Bush's case laid bare his continuing effort to impugn the vice president's character.
Speaking at the Peach Festival here, Bush sought to portray Gore's refusal to sign on to a Bush-proposed series of debates as akin to President Clinton's evasions over the Monica Lewinsky affair.
"My opponent said he'd debate me anytime, anyplace, anywhere; he went on some of the national TV shows and said 'If he'll just show up I'll debate him,' " Bush said.
"It must all depend on what the definition of 'anytime' is. It depends on what the definition of 'anywhere' is. ... I guess it's the same old tired double talk out of Washington, D.C. -- 'No controlling legal authority.' 'It depends on what the definition of is is.' "
The first statement was uttered by Gore when he was seeking to excuse controversial fund-raising calls he made for the 1996 presidential campaign, and the second by Clinton when he was questioned by prosecutors during the Lewinsky investigation.
As evidence that the presidential race has been dramatically altered in recent weeks, Gore campaigned above the fray. He said that he dismissed Bush's debate proposals because they would produce shorter, less-watched events. He referred to Bush only sparingly and elliptically. He argued, as he has in recent days, that Bush must flesh out his agenda with details.
"I believe people need specifics before the election," Gore said in Flint, Mich.
Gore spent most of his time touting both his agenda and the gains made under the Clinton administration, and argued that he would extend the good times.
"I'm not satisfied," he told more than 1,000 supporters at the Louisville Motor Speedway in Kentucky. Then he exulted: "You ain't seen nothing yet!"
The day's events sharply delineated the race's new configuration. For months, Bush led in the polls, often by large margins, and Gore has had to right his listing ship.
But since the Democratic convention in Los Angeles ended on Aug. 17, Gore has surged in the polls. Once ham-handed, the vice president has campaigned confidently and has been on the offensive more often than not.
The once sure-footed Bush, in contrast, has stumbled more than at almost any time since he began his campaign for the presidency in 1999. Recently, he has been distracted from his game plan and on the defensive repeatedly.
Leading up to Labor Day, polls showed the race up for grabs. A Gallup Poll released last week showed Bush with 46 percent to Gore's 45 percent -- a statistically insignificant spread. Hence the importance of the Labor Day launch, which
is still recognized as opening the period when undecided voters turn their attention to politics.
Both candidates come into the fall sprint with a strong hold on their base, yet clutching less successfully at the undecided, mostly moderate voters whose allegiances swing from one party to the other. Many of those voters reside in the upper Midwest, in places such as Romeo's Macomb County, where the campaign was concentrated Monday.
At his first event of the day, a Labor Day rally in the Republican stronghold of Naperville, Ill., west of Chicago, the GOP nominee went after Gore.
"It's time to elect people who say what they mean and mean what they say when they tell the American people something," Bush told more than 1,000 cheering supporters.
Bush sounded his familiar policy themes, advocating a stronger military, the need for education reform and his long-standing pledge to bring "honor and integrity" into the Oval Office.
He also touted his 10-year, $1.3 trillion tax cut, waving dollar bills as he described the federal budget surplus as "the people's money" that rightfully belongs in the people's wallets.
At one point in Naperville, he said that he would spend $1 trillion of the surplus to strengthen the military. Bush later corrected himself, saying that amount would go to the military, to reform education and to guarantee prescription drug coverage for senior citizens.
"I want the working families to put that money in their pockets," he said.
Gore, for his part, loaded his speeches Monday with vows of a targeted middle-class tax cut, a promise to veto a larger GOP tax cut, and his plans for prescription drug coverage, debt reduction and college tuition deductions.
But as important on Monday was his campaign's effort to use the debate brouhaha to define Bush. Much as Bush was using it to portray Gore as a candidate who goes back on his word, Gore was using it to paint Bush as a candidate who does not fare well under pressure.
Bush gave Gore ammunition on that front Monday. Not realizing that his remarks were being picked up by the public address system, Bush in Naperville turned to his running mate Dick Cheney and said, "There's Adam Clymer, major league asshole from the New York Times."
Cheney replied, "Oh, yeah. He is. Big time."
As Bush arrived later for a campaign event in Allentown, Pa., he would not apologize for his comment. But he said, "I regret that everybody heard what I said."
Clymer, a veteran political reporter, said only that he was "disappointed in the governor's language."
The Gore campaign, however, seized on the comment as an indication that Bush, who has vowed that he would bring civility back to Washington, was wilting under the increased attention.
"Last week, the governor broke his promise not to engage in negative personal attacks when he attacked Al Gore," said Gore press spokesman Chris Lehane, referring to the stepped-up hostility in Bush's remarks, as well as an anti-Gore commercial paid for by the Republican National Committee and approved by Bush. "And now, this week, facing increased pressure, he not only is attacking Al Gore, he's also attacking the press."
Also in the Midwest Monday was Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who attended a Detroit labor festival that was also visited by Gore's running mate.
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