By RON FOURNIER
George W. Bush and Al Gore swapped accusations Friday about military readiness and Social Security, but their closely fought presidential race was thrown into commotion over the Texas governor’s 1976 drunken-driving arrest and his belated response.
"I’ve made mistakes in my life," the Republican candidate told supporters, "but I’m proud to tell you I’ve learned from those mistakes."
"I have been very candid about my past," he said four days before the election. "I’ve said I’ve made mistakes in the past. People know that. They’ve thought about that. They’re making their minds up now."
Across the country, a high-powered cast of Bush backers accused Democrats of "dirty tricks" — prompting the vice president’s campaign to deny involvement in the disclosure of Bush’s arrest. Gore himself said, "I have no comment on this. I want to talk about the issues."
And so he did, heeding aides who said neither candidate is safe from fallout if the episode is mishandled.
Racing through Missouri, Iowa and his home state of Tennessee, Gore unveiled a new twist on his argument that Bush is not ready for the White House. In disbelieving tones, he referred to comments Bush made Thursday regarding Social Security and said the Texas governor doesn’t even know the basics of the program.
"If Governor Bush doesn’t know that it’s a federal program, maybe that explains why he thinks it’s all right to take a trillion dollars out of the trust fund and play around with it by promising it to two different groups of people," Gore said at an animated Kansas City, Mo., rally.
Defending his Social Security reform proposal, Bush told backers in Missouri a day earlier, "This frightens some in Washington because they want the federal government controlling the Social Security like it’s some kind of federal program. We understand differently though. You see, it’s your money, not the government’s money. You ought to be allowed to invest it the way you see fit."
Afterward, spokeswoman Karen Hughes said Bush misspoke. The Gore campaign rushed out a new TV ad featuring Bush’s comment and closing with the words: "Is he ready to lead America?"
Appearing in Grand Rapids, Mich., Bush sought to keep his focus on why he thinks it is Gore who is not ready to lead. He said the vice president shares the blame for the "days of decline" is U.S. troop readiness, and suggested that Gore had spent too long in President Clinton’s shadow.
"The shadow is back," Bush said, referring to Clinton campaign activities before flying to the Democratic stronghold West Virginia.
The president was campaigning in California, a state where Bush is gaining ground and where Gore can’t afford to lose, pleading with core Democrats to support the vice president and the party’s congressional candidates. "If you want to build on the prosperity; if you want to build on the social progress in the last eight years; if you want to keep going forward as one America — those are the three big questions. And if you want to do that, you only have one choice: Al Gore, Joe Lieberman and the Democrats," Clinton said.
State polls suggest the race to 270 electoral voters is unpredictable even as Bush holds a slight lead in national public opinion surveys.
Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman said he thought the ticket would win, but was prepared either way. "I’m a realist," he said.
GOP strategists did not think the drunken-driving arrest itself would hurt Bush, but they feared the story could overshadow his campaign-closing message in favor of ending eight Democratic years in the White House. Tom Slade, former GOP chairman in Florida, said, "Anything that disrupts a candidate at this late date is not exactly welcome."
A cornerstone of Bush’s candidacy is his claim that Gore is not trustworthy, and GOP aides were concerned the public could believe that Bush lied to hide the incident or is covering up more damaging episodes in his past.
Throughout the campaign, Bush has refused to answer specific questions about his past, particularly about whether he used illegal drugs in the 1960s and early 1970s. Bush has said he quit drinking 14 years ago, when he turned 40.
Some advisers had known of the drunken-driving arrest for months and, according to one account, had suggested he go public with it. Hughes said Bush decided to keep the matter private because he didn’t want his experience to set a bad example for his children.
Republicans reinvigorated their efforts to find embarrassing incidents in Gore’s past, pointing reporters to a 1968 incident that turned out to be a traffic ticket for speeding and driving without a license. Tennessee Police Capt. Ralph Swift, who issued the citations that cost Gore $21.75, said in a telephone interview, "He took care of it as a gentleman."
Even as they dug into Gore’s past, Republicans blasted Democrats for revealing the 1976 case. The source of the original story was Tom Connolly, a Portland, Maine, attorney and Democratic activist.
"Most Americans are going to come to the conclusion that this is dirty politics. Last-minute politics," Bush told Fox News. "I do have my suspicions" about the timing.
But Connolly was not apologizing, saying, "It’s not a dirty trick to tell the truth."
Afraid of potential backlash if his campaign was involved, the vice president asked at least two senior advisers whether they had a hand in the development and were assured they did not, Democratic officials said.
Try as they might, Bush and his staff couldn’t shift focus from the matter. Hughes was often mobbed by reporters. One crowd jammed the aisles of Bush’s campaign plane, forcing the pilot to delay takeoff.
Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater told colleagues that he had asked Bush in September 1998 whether he’d been arrested anytime since 1968 and that Bush had answered "no." But Slater said the Texas governor also said, "Wait a second" and appeared ready to amend his answer when Hughes stopped the conversation.
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