George W. Bush’s campaign yesterday called Al Gore a “serial exaggerator” and questioned his veracity, and the vice president’s campaign fired back that the governor is “incoherent” and questioned whether he was smart enough to be president.
The pace quickened as polls showed the governor with momentum, taking the lead in the Gallup poll, as both men prepared for Wednesday night’s debate.
“The vice president has consistently and repeatedly made up things, exaggerated, embellished facts,” Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes told “Fox News Sunday.”
Bush aides pointed to a series of remarks they say reinforce a history of embellishment including Mr. Gore’s false stories last week about a 1998 disaster-relief trip to Texas and a 15-year-old Florida student he claimed had to stand daily in class. She did for one day.
“[Mr. Gore] is a serial exaggerator,” Bush chief strategist Carl Rove said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “This is a man who has difficulty telling the truth.”
Memos from Mr. Gore’s earlier campaigns, first published on the Internet on the Drudge Report, reveal that his aides warned him about “exaggerating” and “embellishing” stories as early as 1988. One 1988 memo, by his press secretary, warned him that Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, an opponent in the party primaries that year, as well as reporters covering his campaign were “scrutinizing” his remarks for exaggerations and prevarications. He would suffer, the aide said, if he did not cut it out.
Gore aides yesterday called Mr. Bush a babbling bumbler whose intellectual skills are not sufficient for him to become president.
“Governor Bush seems incapable of talking about the important issues in this campaign in a coherent way,” Mark Fabiani, Mr. Gore’s deputy campaign manager for communications, said in a statement issued to reporters.
“The American people deserve to hear him explain his policies and address the issues without bumbling and babbling. They expect someone running for president to be held to presidential standards, and that includes talking clearly about the important policy matters that impact people’s lives.”
The release, headlined: “Bumbling Bush babblings on public policy,” quoted newspaper reports that Mr. Bush struggled to recite a series of tax rates Saturday during a campaign appearance in Florida.
Bush senior aide Ari Fleischer dismissed charges by Gore aides that Mr. Bush is inarticulate and unable to explain policies coherently.
“I think voters are much more comfortable with a candidate who occasionally mispronounces a word than with a candidate who has a long pattern of exaggerations and embellishments,” he said.
Mr. Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, regularly say they do not make personal attacks. The Connecticut Democrat repeated the pledge yesterday in an appearance on CNN.
“Al Gore and I made a pledge earlier in this campaign that we were not going to make a negative personal attack on George Bush and Dick Cheney,” Mr. Lieberman told interviewer Wolf Blitzer. “We said over and over again that these are decent men. We just disagree with their plans for America.”
They did not explain how the Gore campaign release yesterday jibed with their pledge.
Mr. Lieberman said it is the Bush campaign that has gone negative. He said Mr. Bush’s running mate, Richard B. Cheney, went “back on the attack” Friday, “with the most vicious comments” about Mr. Gore’s credibility.
“They’re trying to take down the character and the credibility of a good man,” said Mr. Lieberman.
Later, at a Washington brunch that raised $400,000 for the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Lieberman said the election “is about a very important purpose, and it ought not to be denigrating into trying to tear down somebody’s honor and credibility.”
Mr. Lieberman dismissed charges that Mr. Gore embellishes his record, as when Mr. Gore said he inspected damage from wildfires in Texas with James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mr. Gore later said he misspoke.
“This is all about proportion,” Mr. Lieberman said, noting that Mr. Gore had met with a deputy to Mr. Witt.
“Is that a big deal?” Mr. Lieberman asked. “Does that matter as much to American people as what kind of prescription drug benefit Al Gore will provide them?”
He added “people make mistakes.”
The Gore camp took a new, harsh tone as Mr. Bush took a lead of 48 percent to 41 percent in Saturday’s CNN-Gallup-USA Today tracking poll.
The campaign announced it is airing three new 30-second ads. One charges that “almost half” of Mr. Bush’s 10-year, $1.3 trillion tax cut “goes to the richest 1 percent.”
Mr. Bush denies the charge. The top 1 percent of taxpayers pay a third of the nation’s income taxes and get a fifth of the relief under his package, said Mrs. Hughes.
Another of the ads says Mr. Gore would make up to $10,000 of college tuition tax deductible. In the third ad, Mr. Gore says “millions of middle-class seniors” are not covered under Mr. Bush’s prescription drug plan, while coverage would be “available to all seniors” under his plan.
In another sign of escalation, Mr. Lieberman and Democratic surrogates from Capitol Hill this week will emphasize what they call Mr. Bush’s “failed leadership” in Texas. Late in the week, Mr. Lieberman will head to Texas on what the Gore camp calls a “failed leadership” tour.
“We believe Governor Bush’s record in Texas is a window into his priorities,” Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway said last night in a conference call with reporters.
Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett said the Gore camp is launching an “exaggeration and distortion tour” that will mislead voters.
“Stung by criticism of Al Gore’s troubling pattern of making things up, the Gore campaign is lashing out by launching the exaggeration and distortion tour,” Mr. Bartlett said.
“It appears the exaggerations are contagious because Al Gore’s lead attack dog, Joe Lieberman, will spearhead this latest stunt.”
Mr. Gore last night returned to his debate camp in Sarasota, Fla., to prepare for Wednesday’s debate in Winston-Salem, N.C. Mr. Bush returned to Austin, Texas, to do the same.
Andrew Cain, traveling with Al Gore in Longboat Key, Fla., contributed to this report.