Presidential rivals not slowing down

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The Independent US

Texas Governor George W. Bush pined for a "hibernation period" while Vice President Al Gore hoped to give his advertising budget a breather and convince voters he is indeed a reformer.

Both presidential rivals saw their plans muddied by nagging scandals, new headlines and old rivalries as the winter campaign pivoted straight toward the November general election.

Judging by the week past and week ahead, the general election campaign for president will be one of the most protracted, feisty and expensive in history.

Gore has dlrs 3 million more to raise to meet the goal he set last year and also reach the maximum he legally can spend before the summer conventions. The Democrat planned a fund-raiser in Illinois on the eve of the state's Tuesday primary, to be followed by five more fund-raisers by week's end.

The vice president's busy week also includes opportunities to heckle the Republican governor. In New York, Gore intends to harp on Bush policies allegedly harmful to minorities, aides said. On Thursday, Gore is returning to Houston for the second time in two weeks to raise cash for Democrats.

Bush planned to tweak Gore with a fund-raiser Friday in President Bill Clinton's backyard, Little Rock, Arkansas. Bush, who drained his bankroll of an unprecedented dlrs 60 million in his Republican primary fight with Arizona Sen. John McCain, aims to build up dlrs 10 million by summer.

Brushing off Gore's e-mailed challenge for immediate debates and joint town-hall meetings, Bush said wishfully at midweek: "America is now going into a hibernation period when it comes to politics."

But on Friday, it was Bush who fired first in the ad war with a television spot on education that staked out a Republican claim to this vital issue.

A poll released Friday, while confirming that Gore had erased Bush's overall lead in the national race, put hard evidence behind the Bush strategy of claiming education. Among parents, Bush was leading Gore by 23 percentage points and was 15 points ahead among suburban white women.

Bush's early ad salvo forced Gore to respond with his own ad and abandon budget-conscious plans to stay off-air as long as possible.

Trying to claim higher ground on education, Gore was due to spend several hours at a Midwest school Friday, meeting with teachers and administrators, even teaching a civics class.

New headlines had the unfortunate timing of bumping into Gore's effort to claim campaign finance reform as a new centerpiece of his campaign: Congress' bipartisan Joint Taxation Committee reported that, in 1997, Gore's office made improper attempts to get Internal Revenue Service information for a labor union.

So Bush railed from the campaign trail last week that the IRS news, coupled with Gore's campaign fund-raising problems in 1996, "aren't mistakes. These are habits. They raise serious ethical questions."

Tossed another hot potato, Bush deftly backed another step away from the rightward list he took in the primary.

Bush took rare disagreement with National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, chastising him as having "gone too far" when he said Clinton and Gore are willing to accept a certain amount of lethal gun violence in order to further their political agenda for gun control.