- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2000

Vice President Al Gore is attacking what he views as the soft underbelly of George W. Bush by intensifying criticism of the governor's record in Texas, but Mr. Bush can point to modest successes on the environment and health care.

In the second presidential debate on Wednesday night, Mr. Gore went after the Republican nominee repeatedly for Houston's rank as the country's smoggiest city and Texas' worst-in-the-nation status on providing children with health insurance.

"We feel that Governor Bush's record in Texas is a window into his priorities," said Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera. "He was pushed twice [in the debate] on health insurance, and he just kind of ignored it."

The Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee are planning to send surrogates across the country to criticize Mr. Bush's record in Texas, aides say. And Democratic ads will focus more on the Texas governor's record.

Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, was in Texas yesterday, criticizing Mr. Bush's environmental record and meeting with residents who have complained about health problems they attribute to pollution from a nearby industrial complex.

The Connecticut senator, visiting the governor's one-time home town of Odessa, said that Texas has ranked worst in the country for releases of air pollutants during Bush's 5 and 1/2 years in office.

Some analysts believe Mr. Bush failed to answer the charges adequately in the debate with a defense that at times seemed sputtering. But Bush spokesman Ed Gillespie said viewers saw that Mr. Bush "is a governor who cares deeply about the people of Texas."

"I think people were heartened to see him take umbrage," Mr. Gillespie said. "If someone accused you of not caring about your neighbor … of course you'd take umbrage."

Indignation aside, Mr. Bush's responses were tacit admissions to some of Mr. Gore's charges. When the vice president said Texas ranked first in the number of uninsured children, Mr. Bush didn't dispute it, instead pointing out that the state has made progress. Mr. Bush in 1999 signed a bill creating the Texas Children's Health Insurance Program to provide insurance for more than 423,000 children in the state.

"We're doing it faster than any other state our size," Mr. Bush said.

The Bush campaign says there are about 1.2 million uninsured children in Texas, about 200,000 less than the Gore campaign has claimed.

Likewise, when Mr. Gore said Texas "is number one in industrial pollution," Mr. Bush didn't challenge the ranking. He called attention instead to environmental achievements during his tenure.

"We are a big industrial state," Mr. Bush said. "We reduced our industrial waste by 11 percent. We cleaned up more brownfields than any other administration in my state's history. Our water is cleaner now."

Environmentalists in Texas say Mr. Bush's record on fighting pollution leaves him vulnerable to the Democratic charges.

"I would like to paint him as having a greener image, but the governor really hasn't done much," said Neil Carman, clean air program director for the Sierra Club's Lone Star chapter. "He has really not done anything unless there was federal pressure to do so."

Mr. Bush has pointed to legislation he signed last year requiring industries to reduce smokestack emissions. But Mr. Carman said Mr. Bush acted only after the Environmental Protection Agency threatened to cut off $1.3 billion in federal highway money for the Dallas region.

If there is a silver lining in the Texas ozone, it is that Houston by some standards ranks as the fifth-smoggiest city in America, not the worst city. Mr. Carman said Houston's ranking depends on whether its data are examined on a one-hour basis each day (smoggiest) or over an eight-hour period each day (fifth-smoggiest).

And even Mr. Carman, a former state air quality official, says that Mr. Bush should be judged against a backdrop of Texas governors who have traditionally taken a hands-off approach to industry in the state.

"I have to admit there's been a certain tendency of previous governors [to ignore polluters] because of the way Texas is," Mr. Carman said. Under Mr. Bush, "there have been some reductions and improvements."

Mr. Gillespie said the federal government "would do well to take a page from Governor Bush's book" on improving air quality. He said Mr. Bush has required industries that were grandfathered under the Clean Air Act to comply with it, while the federal government is not as stringent.

Mr. Cabrera said the Gore camp believes the vice president is at his strongest when he's talking about issues, and that includes Mr. Bush's record in Texas.

But Mr. Gillespie said the strategy will be a "hard sell" to voters, essentially because the public doesn't believe that one person should be held responsible for all the problems in a state.

"People around the country know Texas is a diverse state, with agriculture, high-tech and manufacturing," Mr. Gillespie said. "They understand that being the governor of Texas is governing a lot of people and places and things."

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