- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2000

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush marched onto each other's home turf yesterday in advance of this week's Southern primaries as a new opinion poll found the two men in a statistical dead heat.

Mr. Gore kicked off the first week of the head-to-head presidential campaign by seeking votes in Houston and Dallas, while Mr. Bush planned to take to the road in Mr. Gore's home state of Tennessee.

Both men are focusing on tomorrow's contests in Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma as they seek to broaden their support for the November election.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday found that Mr. Gore, who six weeks ago lagged Mr. Bush by double-digit margins, now leads the Republican 48 percent to 45 percent among registered voters. The poll had a 3 percentage point margin of error, leaving the two in a statistical dead heat.

Meanwhile, in an interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Gore said Mr. Bush's five-year, $483 billion tax-cut plan would put Social Security, Medicare and health care in general at risk.

"In the words of John McCain, he doesn't put one penny into Social Security, one penny into Medicare or one penny into expanding access to health care," the vice president said, quoting the Arizona senator whom Mr. Bush knocked out of the Republican presidential race last week.

Mr. Gore also questioned Mr. Bush's readiness to lead the country.

Mr. Bush shot back: "The vice president obviously believes that all knowledge and wisdom emanates out of Washington… . I think all wisdom and knowledge emanates from the people."

The exchange came as six states hold presidential primaries tomorrow, awarding 341 Republican and 566 Democratic delegates.

Mr. Gore went to church in Houston and later to a health care forum near Dallas, before following Mr. Bush to Florida. Mr. Bush also was traveling to Knoxville in Mr. Gore's home state of Tennessee, where he was picking up the endorsement of Sen. Fred Thompson, who had supported Mr. McCain.

Mr. Bush made his comments after touring the Strawberry Festival, a carnival complete with Ferris wheels, conch fritters and strawberries everywhere.

Despite a lingering cold, he made himself a towering strawberry shortcake at a booth sponsored by St. Clement Catholic Church. Mr. McCain had criticized Mr. Bush for speaking at a South Carolina Christian school whose leaders have criticized Catholicism.

"Woo, baby, that is good," Mr. Bush said as he sat at a table with his wife, Laura, and his brother.

Mr. Gore preached against racism at the Church Without Walls in Houston's suburbs. "We have moved mountains, but we still must part the waters," he told the predominantly black Baptist congregation. "There are still Pharaohs in the land with hardened hearts and a determination to block our freedom."

After a Saturday night of fund raising in Houston, Mr. Gore rose early yesterday and donned a "Don't mess with Texas" T-shirt for a five-mile run through Memorial Park with Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis.

Stretching, Mr. Gore pretended not to understand a reporter's political question about how he expected to fare in a race with Mr. Bush, who runs almost every day. "I haven't seen him run," Mr. Gore said. "What kind of pace does he run?"

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