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Bush woos St Louis with huge Saudi sale

HOPEFUL that his attempts this week to repackage his economic programme will gain him ground in the US election, President George Bush yesterday courted voters by approving a huge arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

In a visit to a McDonnell Douglas plant near St Louis, Missouri, announced only a few hours in advance, Mr Bush announced his approval of the sale of 72 F-15XP fighter planes worth dollars 9bn ( pounds 4.6bn). This would save as many as 7,000 jobs in the depressed defence industry.

Bush campaign staff were meanwhile assessing the mixed reactions yesterday to the President's latest plan to revive the domestic economy, which was laid out in a booklet entitled, Agenda for American Renewal. In an effort to wrest the initiative from Bill Clinton, his Democratic opponent, Mr Bush on Thursday described the programme in an address to the Detroit Economic Club and in television election broadcasts the same evening.

Non-partisan observers credited the President at least for framing his proposals for the first time in a single coherent programme but noted that little of its content was new. After initial praise from Wall Street, the stock market rallied slightly on Thursday.

'There really was nothing new in the speech, but it was presented in a much more coherent way than he has ever done before', commented David Jones, chief economist at Aubrey G Langston and Co. 'He now has a series of programmes he can use as a counterpart to Clinton's' Most commentators noted, however, that the programme has probably come too late to alter people's perception of Mr Bush's handling of the economy. The question will inevitably be asked why the President has not enacted his ideas before.

Among a few novel features in the programme is an offer to cut by one third the staff of the White House if a proportionate cut is undertaken by Congress. And in borrowing a gimmick pioneered by failed Democratic candidate, Jerry Brown, Mr Bush used his television broadcast to invite viewers to use a free-phone number to receive a copy of the proposals.

Mr Clinton and his economic advisers were swift to dismiss the speech as a retread of old ideas. 'The plan that Mr Bush has unveiled is really just more of the same,' the Arkansas governor argued, accusing the President of targeting tax cuts at the most wealthy. Now that both candidates can sell their economic proposals in single, published programmes, the differences between them are easier for voters to identify. Foremost among the distinguishing features are their different approaches to taxation, with the President promising to pursue broad tax-cuts, though in vague terms, and Mr Clinton aiming tax increases at the rich.

Mr Clinton, meanwhile, was due last night to expand on his seemingly vote-winning proposal to offer students federal loans to follow higher-education provided they subsequently repay them either in kind or by completing two years community service. He was to make the speech at Notre Dame, Indiana. The theme of 'mutual responsibility' in offering federal support echoes Mr Clinton's ideas for introducing greater discipline in the welfare system.

The presence of both candidates in the Midwest underlines the importance of the region to the election's outcome. Mr Bush's decision to approve the F-15 sale, in spite of the negative message it will send to Jewish voters, is carefully calculated to appeal to Midwesterners for whom employment, in the defence and other industries, remains a prime concern. The White House said that the sale would 'directly provide over 40,000 aerospace jobs' and have an economic impact on workers in 45 states.

In a speech to the B'nai B'rith Jewish service organisation in Washington earlier this week, Mr Bush said that he would only agree to the sale if he was sure the 'qualitative' military edge of Israel in the region would not be threatened. A similar line has been taken by Mr Clinton, who has said he also supported the sale on condition it maintained Israeli supremacy.

The sale will remain controversial, however, because it appears to contradict White House attempts after the Gulf war to encourage other industrialised countries, Britain included, to restrain companies from entering into large arms contracts in the Middle East to halt the build-up of dangerous arms in the region.

The organisation representing the US government's highest paid employees - those making dollars 90,000 to dollars 112,000 ( pounds 46,000 to pounds 58,000) - said they would sue Mr Bush if he cuts their pay.

(Photograph omitted)