BURBANK, Calif. A confident George W. Bush flew into red-hot California yesterday, determined to take it away from Al Gore with promises of “a better day” ahead.
The Republican candidate arrived as Democrats woke to a surprising Bush challenge for a state that only a fortnight ago was thought to be safely Democratic. Vice President Gore will return this week for the first time in more than a month as polls show his lead cut in half.
“My opponent cannot bring America together because he practices the politics of division,” Mr. Bush said, opening the final week of of the long march to the White House. “His campaign attacks are designed to spread falsehood and cynicism.
“We will not divide and conquer. We will inspire and unite.”
At a rally at the Burbank Convention Center, he was joined by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who reminded the crowd that President Clinton and Mr. Gore will visit the state today.
“California’s going to be blessed to have the president and the vice president,” Mr. McCain said as the audience booed. “We want to say, ‘Mr. Vice President, welcome to Bush country!’ “
Mr. McCain derided the Gore campaign’s “latest sort-of-desperation tactic” of claiming Mr. Bush isn’t qualified for the presidency.
“I remember, and many of you remember, another governor of a big state that the Democrats said wasn’t experienced enough Ronald Reagan,” Mr. McCain said as the crowd drowned out his last words with cheers.
Said Mr. Bush: “The big surprise of this election year is I’m going to carry California.”
“There’s going to be a lot of shocked people on Nov. 7, starting with my opponent and all the pundits who don’t understand what’s happening here in California. We’ve got the greatest grass-roots organization in this state’s history.”
During an appearance later yesterday on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” Mr. Bush clowned with the host, who donned a Bush mask on the eve of Halloween.
“That’s scary,” Mr. Bush said. “This is more scary.”
He put on an Al Gore mask.
On his way to California, Mr. Bush stopped in New Mexico, where he laid out for undecided voters his differences with Mr. Gore in his sharpest comments yet on a multitude of issues.
On tax cuts, Mr. Bush said, “His tax plan is complicated and selective. Our tax plan is broad and fair. Tax relief ought to be aimed at one big target so you can’t miss every American who pays income taxes.”
On government spending: “His budget has massive new spending. Mine has spending discipline. His big-government ideas are out of touch with our time.”
On education: “My opponent builds bureaucracies. I trust local people. I will challenge the status quo. He is the status quo.”
On Social Security reform: “He is trying to politicize Social Security. I am trying to strengthen it. He offers our children debt. I offer them assets and retirement security.”
Underlying these issues, Mr. Bush said, is Mr. Gore’s failure of leadership.
“My opponent says we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and he’s right,” Mr. Bush told the crowd of about 1,500 in Albuquerque, flashing the three-fingered “W” sign. “My opponent can’t bring America together because he will not confront the hard issues. He scares the elderly for political gain. It doesn’t have to be this way. Together, we can begin again. After all the bitterness and broken faith, we can begin again. It won’t be long now.”
Mr. Bush has proposed taking $1 trillion from the Social Security’s projected surplus over the next 10 years to fund personal investment accounts for younger workers. The Gore campaign argues that this will hasten the overall fund’s insolvency; Mr. Bush again repeated yesterday that no benefits for seniors would be affected, and that his plan is the best hope for shoring up the retirement system.
As Mr. Gore has fallen behind in national polls, his team has intensified its rhetoric in the waning days of the campaign, with Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman asserting Sunday that Mr. Bush is not qualified for the presidency.
Asked yesterday about Mr. Lieberman’s comments, Mr. Bush told reporters, “I never expected to get his vote anyway.”
Mr. Bush’s campaign will visit several states that have been reliably Democratic in the past two or more presidential elections, including Oregon, Washington and Minnesota. As he departed Texas yesterday for the final push to capture the office once held by his father, Mr. Bush said: “My spirits are about as high as they can possibly be. There’s a better day, and that’s what I’m about to tell a lot of Americans.”
Mr. Bush frames the choice for undecided voters, and trying to rally Republicans, portraying this election as a pivotal crossroads for America.
“America is nearly ready to decide,” Mr. Bush said. “Our country has limitless potential, but our politics is broken, at least in Washington.
“Washington is obsessed with scoring points, not solving problems. This election has many issues, but one great question: Can we bring America together, move beyond the petty arguments, and get results for the American people? This is the question the American people must answer. And if they answer this question yes, we will win.”
He criticized Mr. Gore’s spending proposals.
“Sometimes he’s proud of this spending,” Mr. Bush said in Albuquerque. “Sometimes he runs away from it. He proposes over 280 new or expanded federal programs but claims they won’t involve one more bureaucrat. You know what I think?”
“He’s a liar!” a supporter called out from the crowd.
Replied the candidate, with a twinkle in his eye: “I think he might be exaggerating.”