- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2000

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. George W. Bush, under attack by Democrats who say he is untested and inexperienced, yesterday deployed a throng of fellow governors to tout his leadership of Texas as proof that he is the most qualified candidate for president.

"He is the only candidate with the experience of being chief executive, he's the only candidate that's had to make the tough decisions the president has to make," former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar told voters at a rally near Chicago yesterday.

Mr. Bush has dispatched current and former Republican governors across the country to testify to his leadership style and remind voters that the office of governor is similar in many ways to the office of president.

"Governor Bush will guide this nation with leadership that's firm but fair," Kansas Gov. Bill Graves told voters Monday in Missouri.

The Texas governor's strategy comes in response to repeated charges by Vice President Al Gore that Mr. Bush is not qualified for the presidency. Mr. Gore, who has trailed the Republican nominee in polls since the first presidential debate on Oct. 3, is getting personal, stating at nearly every stop that Mr. Bush can't handle the job.

The vice president has criticized Mr. Bush's desire to bring home U.S. troops from the peacekeeping mission in the Balkans, suggesting the move could spark another war in the region. Mr. Gore failed to mention that he had said in 1996 that he wanted those U.S. troops to return home within a year.

Gore surrogates such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, are warning this week that vice-presidential nominee Richard B. Cheney's experience as a former defense secretary cannot compensate for Mr. Bush's perceived shortcomings.

Said Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera: "Our megamessage is that this is a serious election. You need to decide on the big choices."

"Surveys show over 50 percent of Americans have doubts about whether he [Mr. Bush] is up to the job. That's something that is fair for people to consider. It's the most important job on the face of the planet, and Governor Bush has only himself to blame for those questions being raised," Mr. Cabrera said.

But the Bush camp is mostly satisfied that it has already knocked down the criticism that Mr. Bush lacks presidential potential, especially with his command of foreign affairs intricacies in the second debate.

"They're making a big mistake," Bush strategist Ralph Reed said of the Democrats. "They're repeating the mistake that [former Gov.] Ann Richards made in 1994 in Texas, which was underestimating Governor Bush."

He added that a candidate could not get elected to back-to-back terms in the nation's second-largest state "if you're not bright and capable."

In addition to touting his experience, Mr. Bush is sharpening his comments about character, promising to "set an example for people who are watching closely."

While Mr. Bush himself avoids directly attacking Mr. Gore's character, the governors and other surrogates are doing so fiercely, particularly his habit of exaggerating details in stories.

"We have one candidate who will make history for the American people," Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas said Monday, "and another candidate who keeps making history up at every chance he gets."

He called Mr. Gore a "political vending machine" where "you put in money and anything you want comes out of it."

While he rarely specifically mentions the Clinton administration and its scandals, Mr. Bush has alluded to it with increasing frequency in recent days.

"We can do better in our nation's capital by bringing in somebody outside the system," he said yesterday in Illinois, "bring in somebody to give this nation a fresh start after a season of cynicism."

Mr. Edgar made a more explicit appeal, saying Mr. Bush "is someone you can be proud of when he's in the White House, and you can tell your child to look to the president and see a person you can respect once again."

Although Mr. Bush speaks almost incessantly of restoring the "honor and dignity" of the Oval Office a clear reference to the current president he denied yesterday that he is trying to tie Mr. Gore to Mr. Clinton's shadow.

"I am not running against President Clinton," Mr. Bush said when a student asked him about the president. "That's the last chapter of the 20th century … a chapter most of us would rather forget."

"I don't think there is a lot of politics to be gained by talking about him," Mr. Bush said. "As a matter of fact, I think most Americans would rather move on."

But he offered a pointed warning to the president, who has occasionally stepped into the campaign to attack Mr. Bush.

"Now, if he can't help himself, and he gets out there and starts to campaign against me, the shadow returns," Mr. Bush said. "I might say something in defense of my record."

Mr. Bush also has made a point in recent days of talking specifically about the shape of his presidential administration, a practice he avoided through most of the campaign for fear of looking overconfident. He outlined the shape of his presidency in a speech Monday, and yesterday allowed himself an uncharacteristic public sign of confidence.

"If all goes well, I can't wait to assume the highest office in this land," he told students at a rally at a school in Arlington Heights, Ill.

After his swing through Florida today and tomorrow, Mr. Bush plans to hit Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. His gubernatorial surrogates will continue campaigning for him through Election Day in seven teams, scheduled to visit 25 states.

• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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