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Upbeat Bush Steps Up Rhetoric

By Ann Devroy
The Washington Post


Pumped up by the polls and the moment, President Bush raced across Michigan Thursday in rhetorical overdrive, attacking the "way-out, far-out" Democratic ticket on everything from northern spotted owls to his opponent's draft record.

Bush, during his 12th campaign trip to this vital state, was introduced at three stops in Detroit suburbs by Michigan Gov. John M. Engler, who called the contest here "dead-even," the Democratic campaign "dead in the water" and the Bush campaign "hot."

And hot Bush was.

At a midday GOP rally at Macomb Community College, the president unleashed a rhetorical fusillade on Bill Clinton and running mate Sen. Albert Gore Jr., attacking their fitness for office, their character and charging, "My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos."

In particular, Bush targeted Gore, whom he now calls "Ozone Man," or just plain "Ozone." "You know why I call him Ozone Man?" Bush said. "This guy is so far out in the environmental extreme, we'll be up to our neck in owls and outta work for every American. He is way out, far out, man."

While many of his aides were still waking up, Bush started his morning with an hour of television interviews, chortling about how Clinton had been "measuring the Oval Office for drapes" but that now the race had tightened.

Bush, who dismissed pollsters as "nutty" just last week when they showed him at least 10 or 12 points behind the Democrat, liked them more Thursday when polls showed a far narrower lead for Clinton.

In a morning speech to the Chamber of Commerce, a more subdued Bush portrayed Clinton as a typical Democrat who would raise taxes, increase spending, and return the nation to the high-inflation, high-unemployment era of Jimmy Carter.

But even there, Bush slipped into his now-familiar garbled syntax in which he forgets his audience may be hearing a particular line for the first time and fails to tell it the beginning of a story. Or the end. Or the context.

Noting he had criticized the news media for being unfair, he told those in the crowd they should not take their anger out on journalists. "Save your wrath for those faithless Republicans and faithless Democrats who wrote me off about two months ago, because we're going to show that rathole we are going to win this election."

At a later rally, Bush straightened out the rathole reference, citing President Harry S. Truman's complaint that the pundits who predicted he would lose in 1948 "don't know how to pound sand in a rathole."

Those writing him off, Bush said, are like those 1948 pundits. Bush and his aides, who practiced for months in dismissing what the president calls "gloom-and-doom" polls, had the tricky task here Thursday of arguing the president was finally on the move, without mentioning the forbidden "Big Mo."

In 1980, Bush won his first presidential caucus in Iowa and tried running as the candidate with "Big Mo," big momentum. He was soundly defeated because, many suggested, he based his candidacy on momentum not issues. "We don't do Big Mo," said campaign political director Mary Matalin. "we do C.O., cautious optimism." Their optimism is based on public and private polls that show a single digit race -- they say a six point difference -- and an electoral breakdown that while not good, at least makes a win remotely possible if the closing trend continues.

The whole Bush campaign, including the warm up speakers, were charged up Thursday. At the Warren event, Democratic state Sen. Gilbert J. Dinello churned the crowd into a frenzy by calling Clinton a draft-dodger, a liar and a man who "wails, whines and wimps out."

Actor Bruce Willis shouted into the microphone that Clinton was not qualified to be president. "I'm pissed off," Willis shouted, to hear the Democrat say he is qualified. At a later rally, this one at the Gerald Ford Library in Grand Rapids, Willis introduced the former president with the same complaints in language rare for a political rally.

Bush, too, hit on what he said were Clinton's lack of qualifications for the Oval Office because of "waffling" on issues. "You can't be president if you try to be all things to all people," Bush said, complaining Clinton had "if, ands and buts" to explain his positions on every issue. "You cannot have a lot of buts in the Oval Office," Bush screamed, his voice growing hoarse.

Bush aides maintain that the tightening of the polls reflects an electorate uneasy about Clinton's character, and they are doing all they can to keep the dialogue these few remaining days on character, rather than on the economy.

"Here is my appeal," he said. "Barbara and I both have tried to uphold the public trust. And character. Bill Clinton -- Bruce Willis mentioned this, Bruce Willis said that, I mean, Clinton said that it is not the character of the president but the character of the presidency. Wrong. They're locked in. They are interlocked."