Bush on the defensive as Gore feels poll bounce

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The Independent US

Chasing each other across the key electoral states of the Mid-West, the two US presidential contenders were forced for the first time yesterday to engage each other directly in a pre-Labor Day foretaste of the autumn campaign.

Chasing each other across the key electoral states of the Mid-West, the two US presidential contenders were forced for the first time yesterday to engage each other directly in a pre-Labor Day foretaste of the autumn campaign.

With no fewer than six opinion polls now registering the Democratic convention as a resounding success for Vice-President Al Gore, the campaign of George W Bush slipped into defensive mode, pounding away at the safe issues - for Republicans - of education and military spending.

There was abundant evidence, however, of a new renewed vigour in the Gore campaign. In Milwaukee, Mr Gore countered head-on Republican accusations that the country's defences had been neglected during the past eight years, insisting that the US armed forces were "the best prepared, the most powerful, most modern military in history". He also cited his experience of war in Vietnam (albeit as an army reporter) as proof of his superior qualification to be Commander in Chief.

Neither Mr Bush nor his running mate, Richard Cheney, went to Vietnam: Mr Bush served in the Air National Guard in Texas while Mr Cheney stayed in higher education and benefited from perpetual deferments.

Mr Gore was addressing the annual convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars, the main US veterans association, just 24 hours after Mr Bush had used his address before the same audience to lament the country's state of military readiness. The next president, Mr Bush had said, "will inherit a military in decline," and he received a standing ovation for his pledge to "rebuild the military power of the United States".

Hitting back, Mr Gore argued that the cuts in the defence budget quoted by Mr Bush dated not to the Clinton years, but to the tenure of his father, George Bush, at the White House. Only last year, Mr Gore said, the administration signed a 4.8 per cent military pay increase, the largest in a generation, with another 3.7 per cent to come this month.

In a succession of post-convention interviews - his first unscripted encounters with reporters for weeks - Mr Gore appeared buoyed by the poll verdicts on his convention speech, which were unanimously positive. The last two post-convention polls - The Washington Post-ABC out yesterday and the Reuters-Zogby poll on Monday - put Mr Gore in the lead. Although the leads of 2 and 3 points respectively were within the margin of error, this was the first time either poll had showed Mr Gore ahead since the primaries.

Aides to Mr Bush insisted that the tightening of the race was what they had forecast all along, and observers noted that a realistic indication of the state of play would emerge only around Labor Day (4 September), when the Democratic Convention was as far in the past as the Republican Convention is now. They also noted that Mr Bush had raised seven times as much money in July as Mr Gore, although more frugal spending has left Mr Gore with more in his warchest - an estimated $6.4m (£4.3m) to Mr Bush's $4m.

A hint of defensiveness could be detected in the Bush campaign as the candidates approach their next big test: the televised debates. The commission that organises and sets the rules for the debates made its proposals more than a month ago; but Ari Fleisher, Mr Bush's senior adviser, said the Bush camp has still not agreed either the number of the debates or their venue.

The commission proposed three presidential debates - in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Missouri - and one vice-presidential debate, in Kentucky. The line of the Gore camp, which expects its candidate to shine in a confrontation, is the more debates the better.

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