- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG Vice President Al Gore yesterday made his fourth trip to Florida since the Democratic convention, courting seniors in a bid to win the state.

Mr. Gore hopes to wrest Florida's 25 electoral votes from Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whose brother, Jeb Bush, is the state's governor, by promising to protect health benefits in a state where 2.7 million people are on Medicare.

Mr. Gore spoke to 700 seniors at the Coliseum Ballroom yesterday, saying, "Six weeks from tomorrow, the people of Florida will play a decisive role in shaping America's future."

But Florida Republicans say two of Mr. Gore's recent exaggerations about the cost of his mother-in-law's prescription drugs, and his claim that his mother sang him a lullaby as a child that was not, in fact, written until he was 27 have resurrected the character issue and halted Mr. Gore's momentum.

"The character issue was brought back to the forefront," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "Those character issues resonate strongly with senior citizens."

Mr. Gore vowed to protect seniors against health maintenance organizations that break contracts with Medicare.

"We will no longer just accept the rising wave of HMOs dropping seniors and denying them coverage, all to enhance their bottom line," Mr. Gore said.

"Here's my bottom line: tough new penalties for any HMO that tries to exclude or drop our seniors."

Mr. Gore released a 74-page booklet titled, "Medicare at a Crossroads." It details his plans to apply the Medicare surpluses projected at $360 billion over 10 years toward paying down the national debt. He also plans to apply interest savings to Medicare and to add a prescription-drug benefit that would cost $338 billion over 10 years.

Florida is a traditionally Republican state and a cornerstone of Mr. Bush's election strategy. In 1996, President Clinton became the first Democrat to win Florida since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Florida polls reflect a neck-and-neck race.

"Obviously, we sense an opportunity here," a senior adviser to Mr. Gore said yesterday.

Mr. Bush has pulled even or edged ahead of Mr. Gore in national polls, after gaining positive feedback for his "Oprah" appearance and raising questions about the vice president's character.

But the Gore campaign believes the vice president's strength in big states gives him a head start in the race to 270 electoral votes. Mr. Gore holds strong leads in four states California, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois which together provide 132 electoral votes, nearly half the total needed for victory.

Florida is "the most critical state of all," among the remaining battlegrounds, said Mr. Cardenas, the Florida Republican chairman, in a telephone interview.

The race in Florida "looks a lot different than it looked 10 days ago," he said. Mr. Gore "had a terrible week and George W. Bush had a great week."

Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett also emphasized the character issue.

"Given all the things he made up last week and is making up today, Al Gore is quickly becoming the Hans Christian Andersen of American politics," he said.

Mr. Bush is fighting hard in Florida. He recently bought $2 million in ads in the state. Three generations of the Bush family former President George Bush, his sons George W. and Jeb, and his grandson George P. Bush raised nearly $2 million at Republican Party fund-raisers Friday in Tampa, Naples and Orlando.

Florida Republicans believe Mr. Gore opened himself to charges of pandering when he urged permanent residency status for Elian Gonzalez. The Clinton administration's seizure of Elian should give Mr. Bush a large margin among Florida's Cuban-Americans, Mr. Cardenas said.

But Mr. Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, is popular among Florida's 620,000 Jewish residents, who make up 4.3 percent of the state's population.

"There is no doubt Florida is in play," Bob Butterworth, Florida's attorney general and the chairman of Mr. Gore's Florida campaign, said yesterday as he introduced the vice president.

Mr. Gore is counting on seniors like Julius Lesser, who applauded his promise to protect Medicare yesterday at the Coliseum Ballroom.

"Because I'm a senior, yes, it's a priority," said Mr. Lesser, 68, of Oldsmar, a retired employee of the New York City Department of Corrections. "Everybody's going to be in our position someday."

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