Bush tries to damn with praise

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President Bush, defying modern American political tradition, admitted yesterday that his opponent, Bill Clinton, was a 'nice fellow', who had done 'some good things'.

But the President said he was ready to 'go after' the Democratic candidate; had no intention of dropping out of the race; and - despite many appearances to the contrary - had the 'fight' to campaign energetically this autumn.

'I am not only not going to drop out, I really remain confident that I am going to win this election,' President Bush said in an interview with the USA Today newspaper. 'I'm a fighter. I like to take on the odds and let the big front-runners coast along.'

With Mr Clinton 25 points ahead in the most recent CNN-Gallup poll, and Mr Bush's approval rating slipping below 30 per cent for the first time, there have been manifold symptoms of panic in the Republican camp in recent days. Several conservative commentators and Republican-leaning newspapers have called on President Bush to retire from the race in favour of a younger and more vigorous candidate.

Mr Bush accepted some of the blame for his misfortunes, saying he had been too busy running the country to be 'much in the way of a candidate'. But he accused the Democrats of unfair and negative campaigning - distorting his record and making unfair personal allegations, such as the claim that he maintained his nominal residence in Houston, Texas, to avoid higher taxes at his real home in Maine.

This may seem a rather trivial charge compared to the allegations about Mr Clinton's personal life recycled by Mr Bush's campaign this week (before Mr Bush ordered them to desist). Possibly in an attempt to prove that he intends to avoid the personal attacks which sullied his succesful campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988, the President responded - in classical Bush language - when asked what he thought of Bill Clinton.

'He's not without redemption,' Mr Bush said. 'He's done some good things. But now I have to start doing what he's been doing to me for six months and that is pointing out his record. But in terms of personal kind of guy, nice fellow (sic). And I give him a little credit on some of the things we worked on . . .'

In a campaign appearance at a Catholic conference in New York yesterday the President demonstrated, however, how he plans to exploit the personal charges against Mr Clinton in a more subtle fashion than the campaign material he repudiated this week. 'I stake my claim to a simple belief,' he said. 'The President should try to set a moral tone for this nation and all around us we see evidence that America's moral compass has gone awry.' Mr Bush drew cheers from the crowd when he asked: 'When you're looking to restore America's moral fibre, why buy synthetic when you can get 100 per cent cotton?'

Mr Bush did not explain how the presence of Republican presidents in the White House for the past 12 years - and 20 out of the last 24 - had failed to set America's moral compass straight.

Before the Catholic audience, the President renewed his opposition to abortion, calling it a 'national tragedy,' and he reminded delegates he has vetoed seven pieces of legislation related to abortion. 'I am going to stand on my conscience and let my conscience be my guide when it comes to matters of life,' he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Clinton and his running mate, Senator Al Gore, were back on the bus yesterday, resuming their road trip through the Midwest broken off 10 days ago. The trip - now called 'On the road to change America' - will travel through Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, all battleground states which Clinton must win in November.