Related topics

Bush Fighting for Survival in Fla.

September 12, 2000 GMT

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ His new more personal campaign style on display, George W. Bush greeted the breakfast crowd at a local diner to start a day devoted to pressing his health care plan for seniors in a key electoral state he once considered a sure win.

The Republican presidential nominee’s brother, Jeb, is Florida governor. And both houses of the Legislature are controlled by the GOP. But Bush finds himself having to beat back a familiar Republican foe here _ Democratic charges that seniors would lose health benefits under the GOP agenda.

Bush said Tuesday that his plan would ``leave the Medicare system in place ... but offer additional choices for seniors beyond the current system, additional choices just like federal employees get.″

``That stands in contast to my opponent, who says you’re going to be part of a government HMO, that’s the only option you have,″ he told ABC’s ``Good Morning America.″

Then he stopped at Howley’s Restaurant, a local institution, to chat with a few dozen diners, many of them Bush supporters alerted by the local Republican Party. At one table was GOP state Rep. Bill Andrews, who told Bush, ``Hope it works out for you.″

``This is an area that Governor Bush has to do well in,″ Andrews told a reporter later. ``He has to win it on the ground. General proposals are not what people are looking for. He’s got to get specific.″

Boynton Beach construction worker Michael McGrath, 44, was caught by surprise when Bush paused to chat at the diner’s counter. ``I’m shaking like a leaf,″ McGrath said afterward, too nervous to remember what the candidate said to him.

Arriving in Florida Monday, Bush told senior citizens they could expect to hear ``the same old scare tactics politics″ from Democrats.

``They’ll be saying, ’When George W. becomes president, he’ll take away your Social Security check,‴ Bush said. ``Don’t believe them.″

Bush’s family has had experience with such dire warnings before. In 1994, Gov. Lawton Chiles beat Jeb Bush in the closest governor’s race in state history after a Democrat-sponsored phone bank described Bush as a tax cheat. Callers also said his running mate, former state Rep. Tom Feeney, wanted to abolish Social Security and cut Medicare. Chiles later apologized.

This year, George W. is pledging that the centerpiece of his Florida campaign will be Social Security and Medicare reform. Bush, whose father won Florida despite losing re-election as president in 1992, said, ``I don’t remember, in 1992 for example, the campaign making a big issue out of senior issues.″

Bush also said Florida voters would be attracted to his tax cut package and his proposals to reform the military and education, which he said would do more to close the ``achievement gap″ than plans by Democratic presidential rival Al Gore.

``There is a clear difference on issues, and when the Florida voters hear that, they’re going to come my way,″ Bush said at a round-table Monday with local reporters.

Bush held an edge over Gore in Florida before the nominating conventions in August. New private polls conducted by both parties show the race even or the vice president ahead now, just as Gore has tightened the race nationally.

Wrapping up a two-day visit before heading West for visits to Missouri, Washington state and California, Bush already was sharpening his rhetoric against Gore.

Bush said the vice president’s prescription drug plan would force seniors into ``government HMOs,″ give them one chance to enter the plan at age 64 and cost certain seniors more money than they currently pay.

``That’s not fair and that’s not right,″ he said.

But despite his public bravado, Bush’s remarks suggest he is worried about Gore’s surge in Florida. Independent political analysts and many Republicans say the governor took the state for granted for too long, squandering an opportunity to run Gore out.