Bush sees need to sharpen message

By Glen Johnson and Susan Milligan, Globe Staff, 8/23/2000

EORIA, Ill. - George W. Bush said yesterday that ''I've got to do a better job'' of making the case for his $1.3 trillion tax cut proposal, even as a GOP congressman questioned public support for it and Vice President Al Gore charged ''it would wreck our good economy.''

Representative Ray LaHood of Illinois introduced Bush at a boisterous airport rally in this battleground state, but in an interview later, he gave lukewarm support to the tax plan. ''I think there's some appetite for it. But I think he should also be talking about, `I want to be able to pay down the debt, too.' I think that is problematic for people,'' he said.

Gore has been sharply critical of Bush's proposal, which is more than double the $500 billion in targeted tax cuts he has proposed, saying it would disproportionately benefit the rich, prevent Social Security reforms, and leave the $5.6 trillion national debt untouched.

The criticism has prompted a more vigorous defense of the tax proposal this week from the Bush team, including Bush's unprompted declaration yesterday that ''I'm not changing my opinion on it, because it's the absolute right thing to do.''

Meanwhile, Gore criticized the tax cut again as he also attacked Bush on a different front. During a speech in Milwaukee to the convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he accused Bush of trying to ''run down America's military for political advantage in an election year.''

A day earlier before the veterans group, Bush complained that Gore and President Clinton had cut spending too deeply and undercut troop morale such that the next president ''will inherit a military in decline.''

Wearing a VFW hat attesting to his service as an Army reporter in Vietnam, Gore replied: ''Since the day I founded the Vietnam-era Caucus in Congress, I have never stopped fighting for an unshakable national commitment to our veterans. It's that year-after-year commitment to a strong American defense that makes me so concerned when others try to run down America's military for political advantage in an election year.''

He added to applause: ''It's not only wrong in fact; it's the wrong message to send our allies and adversaries across the world.''

Meanwhile, the Gore campaign released a biographical TV ad that begins with Gore's decision to enlist and volunteer for duty overseas. Bush served as a fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard and served stateside.

The ad will run in 17 closely contested states and cost about $5.5 million. Last week, the Bush campaign launched its first pair of general-election ads.

Bush made his tax comments in response to a general question from reporters about why he thought he could do well in traditionally Democratic states.

''I've got ideas on issues that people are concerned about, like education and strengthening the military, a tax-relief package that says to the people we're going to give you some of your own money back. I've got to do a better job of making it clear,'' he said on his campaign plane.

The federal budget surplus is projected to total nearly $4.6 trillion over the next 10 years, even after accounting for $3.3 trillion in growth of existing government programs, Bush and his aides pointed out.

Bush has proposed splitting up the $4.6 trillion surplus, which includes $2.3 trillion in Social Security trust funds, by leaving the Social Security money alone; spending $1.3 trillion on a 10-year, across-the-board tax cut; and leaving the remaining $1 trillion in reserve for new government programs, debt repayment or federal emergencies.

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes accused Gore of ''trying to muddy the waters'' by saying that the tax cut would affect existing government programs.

''I think that many American people do not realize exactly how much additional spending is already budgeted and how much on top of that additional spending is the surplus announced for over the next 10 years, and that is the point that the governor wants to make,'' Hughes said.

LaHood repeatedly labeled the tax plan ''ambitious'' and ducked when asked if a smaller tax cut would be better.

''I think he's made a decision on this and he's decided what it's going to be, and when he gets elected president, then obviously other people are going to weigh in on it, including members of Congress,'' LaHood said.

The congressman added: ''I think it does resonate with some people, but I think the issue of paying down the debt also resonates.''

Gore's appearance before the veterans appeared to heighten awareness of his military record. Some in the hall said they hadn't even known, until the vice president mentioned it, that he had been in Vietnam, and that it affected their view of Gore.

''I was leaning toward Mr. Bush, but I don't know now,'' said Korean War veteran Jerry Litzau, 71, of Brown Deer, Wis.

Gore's biggest applause line came when he pledged to raise pay for military servicemen and to improve their housing and educational opportunities.

Johnson, traveling with Bush, reported from Peoria; Milligan, traveling with Gore, reported from Milwaukee.